Sustaining Compassion

Food For Thought

Sustaining Compassion
Words by Rosalind Fournier Images provided by Food for Thought

Tiffanie Nelson vividly remembers being in her son’s school one day for a teacher meeting and hearing a young boy crying in the nurse’s office. After a few minutes, the nurse came out and told another staff member the child was so hungry, he was in agony. This student had arrived at school not having had dinner the night before or breakfast in the morning, perhaps without having eaten since his school lunch the day before. The nurse asked if anyone had a snack she could give him. 

“I just happened to have a carful of food,” Tiffanie says, “so I brought in a box of snacks. She was so appreciative. She said children coming to her hungry happens more than you might think.” 

This unfortunate incident repeats itself, every day, across countless schools as children arrive for the day hoping to receive an education without their most basic needs having been met. In this case, in that heartbreaking moment, Tiffanie just happened to be in the right place at the right time to intervene, ready and willing to help a hungry child. It also happens to be the role she, her team, and hundreds of volunteers now fill every day through the Food for Thought Outreach, the nonprofit organization she founded in 2010 to help meet the needs of food-insecure children in her community. 

Tiffanie says Food for Thought—which will be the beneficiary of all proceeds from Alys Beach Crafted, October 21–22—began after she enrolled her son in kindergarten and noticed how many questions on the registration form dealt with concerns about available food, secure housing, and other potential challenges in the child’s home, questions which raised her curiosity about the needs of families at the school. 

“I went home and started looking online, and I learned pretty quickly about needs that were either hidden or I was unaware of in our community,” Tiffanie says. In fact, in the state of Florida, up to one in six children experience food insecurity, and Tiffanie  recognized how she herself, and countless others, could be one bad day away from their children facing hunger. While Tiffanie  had a good job and was able to provide for her own kids, as a single mom she could see how easily that could change. “I certainly understood the vulnerability of my sole responsibility to provide for my children and what would happen to us if I couldn’t work, or became
sick, if we had a family emergency,” she says. “I just felt very compassionate about what it might be like for these kids trying to go to school and learn without having had dinner, without having had breakfast, without having access to a snack. And I truly wanted to help.”

Tiffanie approached the school about identifying a handful of students in need, and with a $300 grant from her church, she started packing backpacks of food for these students to take home every Friday to have over the weekend, when they didn’t have access to the free or reduced-cost lunches the school provides. 

As word spread, other families and even other schools started asking about the program, and she added more and more kids to her list. Before long, Food for Thought was an official nonprofit with 501(3)(c) status, she was building a volunteer network, and Food for Thought was serving students across multiple schools. The next year, Tiffanie left her corporate job to become the full-time CEO of Food for Thought. Today the program provides weekly access to food for more than 3,000 school-aged children in Walton and Okaloosa counties.

“As the needs and demands of the community have increased, so have our programs,” she says. “We started with the backpack program to help food-insecure students eat over the weekends. Then we moved into providing services over Thanksgiving, Christmas break, and summer.” Food for Thought also began making regular deliveries of snacks to schools for the staff to have on hand. Most recently, they launched the Full Circle Kitchen program, a culinary program funded by the Emeril Lagasse Foundation that brings high school students into Food for Thought’s Santa Rosa Beach pantry to learn the basics of cooking, as well as life skills and job skills. 

Tiffanie says she’s proud of how the organization has been able to grow and adapt—navigating two challenging years of COVID-19 and finding creative ways to continue services throughout the pandemic—as she, her employees, and the volunteers have continued to learn about community needs and the importance of their mission. 

“One of the leading impacts of ongoing child hunger is a significant increase in anxiety and depression,” she says. “There can be cognitive development delays and physical development delays associated with ongoing hunger-related issues, because food is the fuel for your body and brain. The longer you go without proper access to food, the more permanent those impacts become.”

She says support from the community, including The Alys Foundation, is critical. “We have worked with The Alys Foundation for many years, and they give generously as a grant partner. As a community partner, the employees of Alys Beach also volunteer with us, donate turkeys to us on holidays, and serve on our board and events committee, and now we’re excited to be working with them on this event.” 

Alexis Miller, director of events for Alys Beach, who also serves on the board of directors for Food for Thought, says the idea of making the organization the beneficiary of Crafted—a festival that will bring masters of food and drink and renowned craftspeople from around the country to share the stories and fruits of their artistry—grew out of a longstanding relationship. “The Alys Foundation has been a supporter of Food for Thought for the past 10 years, through grants, volunteering to pack backpacks, doing food drives, and raising money in the Alys Beach community,” she says. “Not only is Crafted going to raise money for the organization, but it will also bring Food for Thought to the forefront of people’s minds.”

Tiffanie and Alexis each say they have witnessed the gratitude and relief families feel when they know they won’t have to worry about going hungry thanks to the help that Food for Thought provides. 

“We have binders of thank-you notes from kids and families, and we cherish those,” Tiffanie says. “We know it really means a lot to them. When you go on deliveries to schools, you see when kids have been waiting to make sure you’re coming.”

Alexis echoes that. “There are a lot of kids for whom the only way they get food is through this program,” she says. “I’ve seen families and kids start crying, and they’ll say, ‘We didn’t know about this program. We didn’t know there was a place we could get food—this is so incredible. We wouldn’t have this otherwise.’ That reinforces how dear to our hearts this program is at Alys. It’s great for the community and something we want to continue to support.”