A Conversation with the Founders of Filling in the Blanks

By: Teuta Emini & Alicia Pipher

In 2013, two moms in Connecticut decided to combine their love of community, children, food and charity to better the lives of others by starting Filling in the Blanks, a non profit organization that now has over 200 sites throughout Fairfield and Westchester Counties which have delivered over three million weekend meals to children of low-income families.

GIFF recently had the opportunity to sit down with Filling in the Blanks’ incredible founders, Shawnee Knight and Tina Kramer at their busy Norwalk warehouse to find out how they provide consistent year round nutritional support to over 8,500 children every week.

What motivated Filling in the Blanks and what are the primary goals of the organization in terms of ending childhood hunger?

When we heard there were 32,000 kids in our backyard that didn’t have food on the weekends we were really shocked by that number. We’re not from Connecticut. Tina is from Queens, New York, and I’m from Oregon. We both used food assistance programs at one point in our lives and we’re moms, we like to feed people! We just said, okay we’re going to do this and we started at one school with fifty kids. I guess we thought maybe hunger would just go away but it didn’t, so we started covering more need in the community. We never said no. We just kept expanding and taking in kids and schools. We had the support of neighbors, friends and our own kids who were getting older and wanted to do something to give back and help out. And we wanted to offer something for kids to get involved with to learn about things beyond the bubble some live inside of in Fairfield County and to understand that there is hunger right here in our community.

We were shocked that there was such a need in Fairfield County, it wasn’t something that we thought people here would experience. It also still shocks our volunteers and program partners that we are feeding so many kids every single week right in one of the wealthiest areas of the country and the hunger rate here continues to rise.

Can you offer details about how children in need receive weekend meals from Filling in the Blanks and what sets your strategy apart from previous food assistance programs?

Shawnee and I are volunteers and we utilize volunteers at our organization. We also have a small staff. Volunteers pack the bags here at the warehouse and distribute them directly to schools. This way the kids can bring the bags home for the weekend when free school breakfast and lunch programs aren’t available. It’s different from other food assistance programs because parents don’t have to take time off from work or go anywhere to get the food. The kids are actually bringing it home. We also use the bags as a means of communicating other information so if there are other services that are available for families, we put it in the bags or we email the parents directly and tell them about the services that are available.

What are some typical signs of hunger that kids facing food insecurity might display, and how can Filling in the Blanks help with these signs in addition to feeding them?

It’s interesting that you asked that. We just started our new mobile pantry in October of 2023 and so far we’ve served over 3,000 individuals. We have about 900 families that utilize the mobile pantry monthly. What Shawnee and I realized is that when someone is dealing with food insecurity, they have a lot of other issues that they are dealing with so we have created more of a community hub at the mobile pantry. We work with Stamford Health, CHC and Building One Community to provide other services. At our mobile pantry, families are registering for health insurance, getting flu shots and COVID test kits, and health information such as how to get free mammograms. We’ve also had a nutritionist who was a former diabetic talk to people in the line about diabetes prevention. Our community partners even give out free essential items like bras and diapers. It’s like a farmers market.

Tina made over 800 cookies to give out this past Saturday and we’ve had school groups make cookies for us for the weekends prior. We also usually have something like hot cocoa available and we usually have music playing. Community providers also bring things like bubbles and stickers. The mobile pantry events are great! Just this past weekend one of our volunteers who was giving out cookies overheard a little boy tell his dad that it was the best store he’s ever been to! It’s been really great.
We operate the mobile pantry twice a month, once in Stamford and once in Norwalk. We email and text our families in our program to keep them updated about the mobile food pantry. We’ve distributed almost 300,000 pounds of fresh food including milk, eggs, all kinds of vegetables and fruits, cheese, and chicken or some other type of protein. We really try to give healthy food options. Our goal is to compliment their shelf stable weekend meals with fresh food pantry items.

There are a lot of pregnant moms in line and infants, so along with Stamford Health we’ve explained to pregnant women that they can actually go to the hospital and have a baby even if they don’t have any health insurance. So it’s not only food insecurities, there’s a lot of layers people are dealing with. We’re trying to help in lots of ways with our health and wellness community partners and we also have partners offering legal services, information on financial literacy, housing rights and early childhood & preschool information. The Triangle LGBTQ Community Center in Norwalk has participated too.

We really try to bring whatever services that people who come to the mobile pantry need. And we ask. We inquire. We talk to people up and down the line because people are often scared. They don’t know who to trust or what to ask. We become a trusted resource for them. We see the same faces every month. We see a lot of new faces but we see a lot of the same ones which means they’re trusting us. They trust that we are there to help and we don’t ask for too much information. And, all of the service providers who participate see the value of partnering with our mobile food pantry because it’s a great way to get their information out to people who most need it.

An essential component of Filling in the Blanks’ mission is volunteers. What options are there for people who wish to give the organization their time and knowledge?

We can find something for anybody! From IT to packing bags to being on an event committee, attending events or getting auction items for our events. There are so many ways to volunteer, big or small. We have some wonderful women who hold Monday morning meetings every week. They’ve built out a snack bag program for younger kids to do. We can find a volunteer opportunity for anything and anyone. 7,000 volunteers walk through our doors on an annual basis. There are six bag packing events that rotate every week and sometimes we have more because we are giving out 8,400 bags a week so it’s a lot. People can sign up and come pack on their own or they can come in groups. All of our volunteers are 14 and older who come to the warehouse

to pack. We have youth groups, corporate partners and moms who just want to come with their friends and pack. For younger kids under 14, we have the snack bag program where they can purchase snacks of their choice and pack it in brown paper lunch size bags which we distribute to schools because our points of contact tell us kids are hunger during the week too. Approximately 500 snack bags are packed a week. It’s a great birthday party activity for younger kids and also scout troops. They pack the bags, decorate them and we deliver them to schools. We like to get everyone involved. We even give little ones a chance who enjoy helping out with unboxing.

How does Filling in the Blanks work with educational institutions and neighborhood associations and other partners to increase its effect and reach more underprivileged children?
We work with all of the school districts from Greenwich to Bridgeport. We have a good relationship with the schools because they are our point of contact. We need someone on the other end to distribute the bags. We also work with community centers who run after school programs. We also partner on food collaborative boards. We work with Person to Person, Building One Community and Jewish Family Services in Greenwich. Jewish Family Services is a local hub for helping newly arrived people navigate the area. They give our bags to families who have children and sign them up for our program. When the children get placed in a school, we deliver their bags directly to their school.

According to your website, academic performance suffers as a result of food insecurity. How does Filling in the Blanks help?
Imagine if you didn’t have anything to eat over the weekend and then were expected to show up at school on Monday and sit in a chair to learn. It’s not possible if you show up jittery or anxious or rowdy because you are hungry. The food that we provide over the weekend provides stability so kids don’t show up at school on Mondays all out of sorts from hunger and craving food.

Are there success stories or impactful ones that are most memorable to you about how Filling in the Blanks supports kids and families that you would like to share?
We can tell you one story about a young man who volunteers for us. At the mobile food pantry we need around 20 to 25 bilingual speakers because 99% of the people speak Spanish who come to the mobile pantry. We utilize the services of public school students whose English is their second language to help with registration. This young man didn’t speak English very well when he started but he would go online to help register families. He, himself, also utilizes the program, so it all comes full circle. So it just shows that someone may not have a lot of money to give back, but there are other ways, like how this young man is doing. He is giving back his time and services to his community. His English has also so greatly improved that he spoke for us publicly in front of over a hundred people at one or our golf outing events. It all comes full circle and it’s a great thing to see.

With our mobile pantry, it’s been very interesting. Before the pandemic, we went to the schools and met with some of the kids. After COVID, we weren’t really going into the schools and now, the mobile pantry gives us the opportunity to speak to parents and kids. So many people we talk to on our lines are asking how they can volunteer or say we want to volunteer but we don’t want to get off the line because we need to get our food. We now tell them if you want to volunteer, your food will be packed first and set aside and then we would love for you to help us. It’s been a really beautiful volunteer and community experience. For instance, we have about 12 volunteers that are consistently at the mobile pantry so we have their bags of food waiting for them in the food truck so they can help us out right away.

Another story we can share is about a high schooler whose mom was fighting cancer and just didn’t have the ability to go to the supermarket or the strength to cook meals. This young woman would bring her food back home on the weekends and cook the food to help out her mom and her younger brother. I think a lot of our kids in our program feel pride that they are able to bring something home to their families.

One of the most heartbreaking stories we heard was when a little girl came up to us at one of our first school events and told us she and her mommy ate the food bag because they were moving. We found out from a social worker that the little girl and her mom were being evicted and they had no other food except for our bag of food. That’s all they had. We work about 60 hours a week, but these types of stories are what keeps us going and looking ahead and asking what we can do next. High schoolers aren’t eating? Why not? Let’s figure out another plan. It’s stories like these that keep pushing us forward.

What are some of your future goals and plans for Filling in the Blanks to continue its mission to fight childhood hunger and how can the public support and participate in these efforts?
Volunteer and donate. Fundraising helps tremendously because our biggest expense is food. We spend about two million dollars a year on food and that will probably go up next year. Our biggest obstacle is always trying to keep up with that grocery bill so to speak.

We’d also love to add another site for our mobile food pantry. We are already in Norwalk and Stamford. One of our goals is to add Bridgeport or Danbury to our mobile pantry events but again we don’t currently have the funding. Securing future funding for an additional mobile pantry event to reach more people is something we have on our horizon. To give some perspective, each mobile pantry site costs $15,000. We distribute 25,000 pounds of food at each site. That’s 50,000 pounds of food each month. It’s a lot of food. People are getting somewhere around 50 pounds of food each which is worth over $100 that is restaurant quality. It’s not tossed out food. We purchase produce from a proprietor in Hunts Point and we buy milk, bread and eggs from Stew Leonard’s. Our food matches the quality you would find at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Access to that level of quality of food is not always available to low income households. The food we supply to our kids and families helps create food equity.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us today?

People who would like to join in our mission to conquer childhood hunger can always go to our website, fillingintheblanks.org to volunteer and donate. Another terrific way to get involved is to attend Our Plates with Purpose Gala that is coming up on October 5th. There will be music and five chefs who will be participating. It’s going to be held at The Loading Dock in Stamford. Plates with Purpose is our biggest fundraising event of the year and it’s going to be great!

GIFF sincerely thanks Shawnee Knight and Tina Kramer for taking time to speak with us and for their tireless efforts and leadership at Filling in the Blanks that continues to make a positive and powerful impactful on our community. For more information on Filling in the Blanks, please visit, fillingintheblanks.org.



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