Food For Thought: No school on Thanksgiving means no food for some kids. This nonprofit helps.

Savannah Evanoff
Northwest Florida Daily News

OKALOOSA COUNTY – It’s the week before Thanksgiving, and also the biggest week of the year for Food For Thought Outreach.

It’s because the nonprofit serving food insecure children in Okaloosa and Walton County thinks ahead. A food insecure child depends on the free or reduced breakfast and lunch program at school as their main access to food, said Tiffanie Nelson, the founder.

“A student that is going to miss next week from school because of Thanksgiving is going to miss additional meals where they don't have access to breakfast and lunch at school,” Nelson said. “We work as a staff and with our volunteers to provide services to make sure that families have not only everything they need for their traditional holiday meal, but also so that they can have the kids that we serve can have food for the break. So that's why our services happened this weekend rather than next week, so that kids have access to food all week long.”

Food For Thought Outreach provides a weekly backpack program and a holiday program to provide meals for food insecure children on days they don't receive a free or reduced lunch.

Food For Thought Outreach will distribute food to students enrolled in its holiday program Thursday and will mimic this concept in December to provide meals for children during holiday break. It also provides a weekly backpack program, in which enrolled children receive a bag filled with food to take home for the weekend.

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The organization started in 2010 when Nelson and her two children learned about the food insecurity issue in the community, she said. They started serving six children in one school and now serve 3,000 children weekly in 35 schools.

“When those children are removed from school on the weekends, extended holiday breaks, and in the summer, they do not have a consistent access to food,” Nelson said. “Our goal is to bridge that meal gap and empower children to have access to food so that they can arrive to school ready to learn.”

Food For Thought Outreach will prepare Thanksgiving meals for food insecure children and their families, as well as extra meals to feed students during Thanksgiving break.

Missing meals isn’t ideal in an educational setting, Nelson said.

“None of us are going to do our best if we are missing meals and we're dealing with the physical, emotional and cognitive impacts of prolonged hunger,” Nelson said. “The children we serve are going to suffer from increased tardiness, increased absence from school and illness. They're going to oftentimes be delayed in their development and their progress in school. And as they get older, that's going to really show itself as increased stress and anxiety, as children are really concerned about their access to food.”

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Food For Thought's services are more in-demand than ever, Nelson said. It started in the spring of 2020.

“We're still seeing increased demands and increased needs as families feel the impact now, not just from COVID, but also from inflation, which is hitting everyone really hard,” Nelson said. “The price of gas and groceries and rent are going up so fast that the families we serve, who were already struggling, are now struggling even further.”

Food For Thought Outreach serves K-12 students in Okaloosa and Walton Counties.

They have increased their plans to serve at least 10% more families than this past year, she said.

“To anticipate those needs is just as hard for us, as you might imagine, with all of the shipping issues, and supply chain issues,” Nelson said. “We've been able to work with our partners to secure the resources that we need to make sure we have enough food, because we're gonna provide turkeys, as well, to the families and fresh produce, so there's a lot of logistics to make that happen.”

Because it is a private organization, it raises all of its own funds, Nelson said. The majority raised goes toward purchasing and securing food and resources for children enrolled in the program.

“We always want to make sure that people know that we need their volunteer support and how they can help us,” Nelson said.

To volunteer, email volunteer@fftfl.org. To learn more about how you can help, visit fftfl.org.