NORWALK — A small nonprofit is filling a big gap in the needs of area families having trouble feeding their kids.
Filling in the Blanks distributes food to children in need in Fairfield County and beyond. The group provides meals to students who receive free or reduced lunch or have parents that are a part of the Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) population.
“They don’t qualify for free and reduced lunch, but they still need help,” said Shawnee Knight co-founder Filling In The Blanks.
Food is delivered once a week to about 1,450 students in 23 schools in Norwalk, Stamford, Greenwich and Bedford, N.Y.
The mission has grown rapidly. In 2013, when the organization formed, it served 50 children, Knight said.
Roxbury Elementary in Stamford was the first school to partner with Filling In The Blanks. Teachers there had growing concerns as students were coming to class hungry on Monday mornings. Sarah Arnold, a social worker at school, called a few food pantries in the area, but they all lacked the capacity to help. Then she heard about Filling in the Blanks.
“I don’t remember the last time a teacher came to me and said that students were coming to school on Monday morning starving,” Arnold said. “That has stopped, and the reason it’s noticeable is because five years ago, I was hearing that all the time.”
Staying true to its mission, Filling in the Blanks asks school leaders to store food and distribute it to students on Fridays before they leave for the weekend.
“There’s not a consistent food source” for many families, Knight said. “They’re not sure where their next meal is coming from.”
She said they’re faced with questions like, “Do I pay to keep the lights on, do I pay to put food on the table, do I pay for the health insurance — and they’re forced to make a choice sometimes.”
According to Feeding America, 31,540 (or 14 percent) of children are food insecure in Fairfield County. More than 430,000 Connecticut residents are food insecure and it would take almost $245 million to meet the population’s needs, according to Feeding America.
Knight co-founded the nonprofit with Tina Kramer after they saw a need for this kind of service. It started with just a few staff members, working out of a house in New Canaan. Five years later, Filling In The Blanks has three staff, 1,000 volunteers (60 percent of them children) and a warehouse that can process 4,000 bags of food in five hours.
Families receive letters from participating schools at the beginning of the year that ask if they need the service. Roxbury Elementary School needs between 130 and 150 bags of food per week, up from 65 when the partnership started five years ago.
Each student can expect a range of different foods, including soup, pasta, fruits, granola bars, mashed potatoes and other items. Each week there’s something different, Arnold said. If families have children in need that go to other schools, Filling In The Blanks will give the family multiple bags.
One mother who has two children at Maritime Odyssey Preschool in Norwalk said that before Filling In The Blanks, she was struggling to make ends meet. She has a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old.
“I was struggling because I don’t have a stable job,” she said. “It helps me because I don’t spend a lot of money buying food and I have something extra in the fridge.”
She works part time and makes $150 to $180 per week. She’s a single mother working at a fish market and said that now, “At least we have lunch and dinner every day.”
Donald Austin, executive director at Maritime Odyssey Preschool, said school leaders formed a partnership with Filling In The Blanks, hoping it would help students do better in school.
“It takes a village to raise a child and if the child is hungry at home or mom and dad is struggling, if we can take the stress off the family a little bit, the child will perform better here,” Austin said.
On Friday mornings, Arnold distributes bags of food after Roxbury’s students are finished with breakfast.
She said students aren’t embarrassed when they pick up their bags because “It’s a privilege to be in the backpack club.”
She and other school leaders explain to students at the beginning of the school year that people donate their precious time and money to help their fellow classmates who are in need. Arnold said she explains volunteers pack and transport the food to students, which is a lengthy process.
When students understand that ample preparation is involved, they respond better than if it wasn’t prefaced that way, Arnold said.
One of the unexpected but positive reverberations of the partnership is it gives Arnold another point of contact with parents.
For example, she might tell parents about Filling In The Blanks’ service and they may disclose that they are struggling with something else. “It’s a way to get the conversation started with a family that might otherwise be too shy or reluctant to speak up,” Arnold said.
As the holidays approach, Filling In The Blanks is preparing to distribute holiday backpacks. In December, they fill backpacks with pancake mix, syrup, hats, gloves, water bottles, toothbrushes and toothpaste, books, toys and other items.
Each backpack costs $40 and donations are accepted on the Filling In The Blanks website, fillingintheblanks.org.
As the organization grows, Knight and Kramer said they’re looking for support form of volunteers or food or monetary donations, no matter how big or small. The nonprofit doesn’t receive funding from state or federal organizations and relies solely on fundraisers, volunteers and monetary donations.
In May, the organization hosts a golf outing in nearby Bedford, N.Y.
Its most recent fundraiser was a culinary event in New Canaan. Its next event is a luncheon and fashion show on Nov. 15 at Richards, a Mitchell store in Greenwich. The event requires an RSVP and is from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 359 Greenwich Ave.
“We would like the community to know more about us because I think we’re not very well known in the community,” said Kramer. “We have a good presence in New Canaan because that’s where we live and started.”