A new school year is starting in Okaloosa County Monday, and for most it is an exciting time full of anticipation of what is to come.
But for local non-profit Food For Thought Outreach Inc., the impending school year is looking – well - barren.
“The pantries are literally bare and we are starting back to school, our most critical time of the year,” reads a post on the non-profit’s Facebook page from Wednesday.
Food For Thought, which is entering it's ninth year of service, provides backpacks filled with healthy, easy to prepare food to students who are dependent of free or reduced school meals. The idea of the program is to fill the gap between school-provided meals on weekends and holiday breaks.
Currently, Food For Thought serves 32 schools in Okaloosa and Walton counties and provides backpacks to more than 3,000 students every week and depends fully on donations and volunteers.
“The organization has a staff of five but without hundreds volunteers to pack and deliver the backpacks to the schools they cannot function,” said Laura Holloway, whose company, The Storyteller Agency, handles public relations and marketing for the non-profit. “It costs about $5 per student per week and we are anticipating 3,100 students this incoming school year.”
Holloway explained that the organizations continued growth and the disparity in support between Walton County, where schools started back on Friday, and Okaloosa County are both contributing factors to the current need in the organization.
“While more than half of the students in the Food For Thought program are located in Okaloosa County schools, the program is simply not as well known there,” she said, noting that the non-profit was founded in Santa Rosa Beach in 2010 when Executive Director Tiffanie Nelson saw a real need for the service in the community. “The Food For Thought program has grown very rapidly. It’s a good thing that we are able to help even more, but that means there are more and more kids applying for the program and parents who need that support.”
So how can you help? There are several ways to donate, either with money or time.
“The best way to get involved is to donate money,” Holloway said. “Food For Thought has partnerships with food distributors, which and allows them to get food for a lower cost than consumers. So if someone donates $1 we can get twice as much food with that dollar so money goes twice as far as a physical donation.”
Sponsorships are available as businesses who can give on a larger scale, and individuals can give an annual donation to support a student or an entire school. Food donations are always accepted and a list of acceptable and most needed products can be found on the organization's website. Volunteers are always needed both at the Santa Rosa Beach and Destin locations to pack backpacks, load them onto trucks and deliver them to schools throughout the week.
"The entire program is orchestrated through the selfless giving of time by hundreds of volunteers," Holloway said. "It’s a community truly helping a community, and now is the time that Food For Thought very much needs more support."
For more information about donating or volunteering for Food For Thought Outreach, visit fftfl.org. Find them on Facebook by searching Food For Thought Outreach Inc. or call 850-290-4056.