NORWALK, CT — At the beginning of the year, Tina Kramer and Shawnee Knight were servicing about 2,000 kids through Filling in the Blanks, a Norwalk-based organization that fights childhood hunger by providing kids in need with meals on weekends, when they are not in school.
According to Kramer and Knight, who co-founded the organization, they have added over 1,000 kids to that number since March due to the coronavirus' effect on Connecticut, and the country.
"We're at [about] 3,200 kids that we're delivering to weekly," Kramer said to Patch.
The co-founders noted 900 of those kids are in Norwalk alone, where the organization's service has "grown significantly" this year. They also serve kids in Greenwich, Stamford and New Canaan.
Established in 2013, Filling in the Blanks delivers over 170,000 weekend meals to children in low-income households, according to their website. The organization services kids who typically receive free lunch at school and, as result, are in need of food over the weekend. (Don't miss local and statewide news from all across Connecticut. Sign up for free Patch alerts and daily newsletters.)
The families serviced by Filling in the Blanks are not alone in their food insecurity. Feeding America, which supports 200 food banks across the country, estimates that in 2020, more than 54 million Americans will not have enough nutritious food to eat due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
That number represents 17 million more Americans struggling with food insecurity than before the pandemic, and about twice the population of New York City.
According to the co-founders, the virus, also referred to as COVID-19, has affected Filling in the Blanks in a number of ways.
"Food costs have risen since the onset of COVID-19, and supply is low," Knight said to Patch. "That's been a major hit to our budget because of price increases, and all our fundraising efforts have been canceled."
They also have had to limit the amount of volunteers allowed in their warehouse in order to properly social distance.
"That's kind of impacted us," Knight said, "but we have still managed to pack [lunches] with our skeleton crew of staff and some volunteers."
When schools closed across the state in March, it left the organization "scrambling" to make sure they were still able to provide food for the kids they were helping, Knight said. Though things have been running smoother as of late, Knight acknowledged it is likely less a case of things getting easier and more the fact that they have gotten used to operating in this manner.
"No one knows what tomorrow if going to bring, so we're all standing by ready," Kramer said. "It's like a new wave of different now." Ways To Support Despite the headaches this year has brought, Kramer and Knight are more determined than ever to ensure the kids they service receive what they need. In fact, they are even scheduled to deliver the organization's millionth meal this month. "It's happening earlier than expected," Kramer said. "We were supposed to deliver it probably in January , but since we've added so many additional kids it has revved up." While the co-founders are proud to reach such a notable milestone, Kramer noted it is bittersweet. "It's a huge accomplishment," Kramer said, "but it's also sad, in a way, that there's such a need and that need is growing right now." Knight agreed the accomplishment comes with an undertone of sadness. "We wish we wouldn't be needed," Knight said. "That would be a good day." Filling in the Blanks has already hosted some virtual events this year, including a 5K and a virtual cooking class, but Knight acknowledged the public appears to be getting "a little burnt out" on virtual events at the moment. Still they are looking at a few possible event ideas for later this year that will allow for proper social distancing. Additionally, Kramer said they are going to allow people to form small groups of "10 to 20 people" that are comfortable with each other to come to the organization's warehouse and pack meals together. "We're taking precautions in the warehouse with sanitizing, masks and gloves and social distancing, and we rotate the tables that people pack on," Kramer said. "We're getting 3,200 bags out a week, so we do need the help. We can no longer have big packing events, so volunteers are very much needed." Anyone interested in signing up a group or simply volunteering to pack food can do so through the "volunteer" tab on the Filling in the Blanks website, Kramer said. Donors can also join the organization's virtual food drive by donating through the website. They will also be holding a drive-thru food drive on Sept. 22, during which only mac and cheese, canned tuna and shelf stable milk (juice box size) will be accepted. Held in partnership with ConnectCommunity Church, the event will take place at the Filling in the Blanks warehouse parking lot on Main Avenue from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. "Everyone we've been working with [in the community] has been really amazing," Kramer said. "It's been a lot of people coming together to make sure that the kids in our community don't go hungry."
Pizzeria Partnership Anyone looking for a unique way to donate to Filling in the Blanks this month can also help out by simply buying a pizza.
Throughout the month of September, Letizia's Pizza in Norwalk is selling its popular taco pizza specialty pie for $14. According to the pizzeria's co-owner, Danny Segers, 100 percent of all funds raised through sales of the 12-inch taco pies will be donated to Filling in the Blanks.
"The taco pizza is one of the few specialty pies that we've done but never actually [sold] for an extended period of time," Segers said. "The last time we did it...a lot of customers were almost annoyed that it was such a short amount of time that we had it. People love it."
Segers is one of three owners at Letizia's, along with Dave Cook and founder Dennis Letizia. With customers demanding a longer time period to enjoy the taco pie, the owners decided to give the people what they want while benefiting a good cause at the same time.
"You're helping local kids and families who have gotten us through hard times," Segers said. "People always come through for us, so we like to help the community that is always helping us."
Letizia's has raised money for Filling in the Blanks in the past, which Segers said he came across about two years ago while researching local charities.
"We really wanted [to donate to] a local charity, as opposed to a national one," Segers said. "We wanted something that was really going to help the kids and parents who come into our restaurant."
Kramer and Knight said Letizia's has been "a great community partner" for their organization.
"They've really expanded knowledge about Filling in the Blanks through their huge social media [presence]," Kramer said. "All their social media and their generosity toward us...they've pulled in a new group of people for us, which is fantastic, and raised awareness locally."
Anyone looking to try the taco pizza and help out Filling in the Blanks can pick one up all month at the pizzeria, located at 666 Main Avenue.