Filling in the Blanks volunteer fills meal bags for children from low-income households to take home for the weekend. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Filling in the Blanks
Filling in the Blanks Co-Founders/Co-Presidents Tina Kramer and Shawnee Knight started their organization in 2013. The New Canaan based charity provides weekend meals to children at 32 schools. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Filling in the Blanks

Fairfield County Based Group Fills Gap For Hungry Students

Imagine the anxiety a child feels when he's "insecure" about where his next meal will be.

Even kids in Fairfield County's pricey zip codes live with the worry.

Based on data compiled during the past school year, there are schools in Fairfield, Greenwich, Norwalk and Stamford with at least 50 percent of children eligible for free and reduced-price meals in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) school nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program, according to the Connecticut State Department of Education.

Children may receive free or reduced-price meals if the household's income is within the limits of the Federal Income Eligibility Guidelines. So for example, based on the current guidelines, a family of four would have a household income of $47,638 annually for their children to qualify. 

A Roxbury fifth-grader is an only child in a family that came to Connecticut from Morocco two years ago. He speaks English fluently, but as a new immigrant he struggles to acclimate to life here socially. His parents don't speak English and when he's not in school life is "quite insular."  He worries about his parents getting sick and becoming orphaned. But his "anxiety and sense of security" is fueled mostly by the worry whether he will have enough to eat.

Fortunately, the boy takes part in the federal free lunch program at his school where a Southern Fairfield County organization "fills the gaps" for kids making sure they have enough to eat on weekends.

Filling in the Blanks based in New Canaan provides weekend meals to kids in schools in Greenwich, Norwalk, Stamford and Bedford Hills, NY, among many other schools in the region. The Roxbury school that the boy attends has 115 kids benefitting from the program, said Tina Kramer, co-president and co-founder, along with Shawnee Knight of the New Canaan-based charity founded in 2013. Today it serves 32 schools throughout Fairfield and Westchester counties, all ranging from pre-K to high school.

Kramer said the Roxbury student after several successive Fridays of taking home his very own bag of food and fresh fruit, became noticeably calmer. He stopped fretting about all kinds of things, from school to friends to his parents' health.

Filling in the Blanks provides weekend meal bags to children who qualify for the free or reduced meal programs as well as children in the ALICE:Asset, Limited, Income, Constrained, Employed is a United Way program that helps the working poor.

"We are bridging the meal gap between school-provided lunch on Friday and breakfast at school on Monday morning," said Tina Kramer.

"We have created partnerships with local schools that have students who are food insecure and with other programs that have the client population we are seeking to serve," Shawnee Knight explained.

Filling in the Blanks helps improve the outcomes of these programs by providing for the nutritional needs of the students, she said.

Currently, 2,000 children are enrolled with a waitlist of 400 and the number is estimated to grow in the current months. "We are working with the various school districts on how to strategically expand to additional schools," said Kramer.

The children supported by the program are ones identified as "food insecure" by a school social worker or nurse. "Not having enough food to eat over the weekend puts children in a vulnerable state, unable to fully participate in sports, school or just life, because the worry of not knowing where their next meal is coming from can be all-consuming," Knight said

While information about the income of the families they serve is "not provided" they do know they are kids who qualify for free or reduced lunch or have been identified as being in need. Knight said they estimate that most of the program households are "below 50 % of the area median."

Through year-round fundraising,  FITB purchases the food, working with dietitians and nurses to create complete, easy to prepare bags of food, which contain two breakfast items, two lunch items, four snacks, two containers of milk, a vegetable and a piece of fruit to take home Friday for the weekend. Knight and Kramer said they work with grocers and food suppliers to find the best quality at the best prices.

Kramer was asked if she thought there was a misconception about families "doing fine" in such a wealthy region.

"Food insecurity in Fairfield County is real and it’s right here in our backyard. These are our neighbors, and we need to take action and do something to help. With 2,000 children in our program and 400 on the waitlist these are not numbers that indicate families in Fairfield County are doing “fine," she said.

Asked if she was aware of any stigma among children who participate in the free or reduced lunch program and the FITB program, Shawnee Knight said they rely on "contacts" at the different schools to distribute the bags of food to the kids.

"I can’t speak directly on the stigma for school lunches, but I can on our program. The pre-school and elementary school kids are less likely to feel stigmatized by receiving a bag of food, this is evident in our weekly numbers as the number of kids in the program decline in middle and high school. However, we have worked with each school to establish the best delivery procedures to make each student comfortable taking their weekend meal bag home."

Click here for more information about Filling in the Blanks.