Since its founding over the 2007 Memorial Day weekend, Food for Thought has never been about the peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, the chips, and the cookies the group provides to Toledo-area needy in the Main Library’s downtown courtyard each Saturday.
It’s been about building relationships between Toledo’s have and have-nots — bridging gaps and breaking down communication barriers that have kept the general populace from making eye contact with the homeless and seeing them as fellow human beings.
Created with the mission of being “a gateway between poverty and prosperity,” Food for Thought has gone on to become one of the region’s more successful outreach endeavors.
Dozens of area volunteers from 10 to 20 churches form its core team. Countless others chip in.
“It’s pretty cool to think that in six years, we have not missed a Saturday downtown,” Sam Melden, Food for Thought executive director, said. “[But] Saturday morning is not about hunger or about feeding. It’s more about throwing a block party for some of our friends who are in need. We know each other by name, not by number.”
Now, as the group celebrates its sixth year of existence this Memorial Day weekend, it is looking forward to a major expansion courtesy of a $40,000 grant, its largest ever. The money is coming from the Toledo Community Foundation and ProMedica, Mr. Melden said.
By August, Food for Thought plans to nearly double its mobile food pantry sites.
“Its momentum has not slowed at all,” the Rev. Steve North, associate pastor at New Harvest Christian Church in Oregon and a Food for Thought board member, said.
Donated canned goods and other food items are dispersed once a month from 12 locations. Those include New Harvest, Food for Thought’s base of operations. Eleven other sites around the metro area are served by the group’s 17-foot trailer.
They help a combined 1,300 families.
By the end of 2013, that total will exceed 20 sites. That will enable many more families to be served, Mr. Melden said.
At each site, clients go into the trailer or the church and get some groceries, free of charge, to help ends meet.
When Mr. Melden took over as executive director in August, 2011, the agency had four mobile food sites. He is especially pleased by how that part of Food for Thought has grown.
“We’re not replacing the need for a grocery store,” Mr. Melden said. “It’s just enough to get people through a weekend or maybe a week, so they can pay other bills.”
Stops are made on the same day of every month that has been set aside for each location.
“The idea was never to be like an ice cream truck, where you come into a neighborhood one day, and nobody knows when you’re coming back,” Mr. Melden said. “The idea was always to partner with other organizations.”
Those partnerships aim to not only feed the poor, but also provide them with better access to nutrition.
Studies show one in six Americans suffers from food insecurity. That can mean a lack of food but also a lack of stores in their neighborhoods offering enough fresh fruits and vegetables.
“People who are poor don’t have access to nutritious food,” Mr. North said. “They’re buying poorer-quality food and paying more for it.”
Food for Thought is best known for the sack lunches it distributes every Saturday outside the Main Library.
But that’s not where the program began. It started with foot soldiers walking downtown streets, looking for the homeless.
Would-be recipients were at first wary of the gesture. But they formed a bond with volunteers once they saw they would return on a regular basis.
The now-familiar practice of gathering in the courtyard evolved after street people noticed the supply trailer was parked in that area. It just made more sense to have a central gathering spot.
Countless hours go into preparing the sack lunches each Friday night at New Harvest.
One of the newer developments has been participation by University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University college students to augment the collective efforts of the churches.
Drew O’Donnel, 21, who will be a UT senior in the fall, started what he calls “Bridge Club” at UT in the fall of 2011. A similar club was launched at BGSU last fall.
Neither has anything to do with a card game. The names refer to group efforts to bridge relationships between each campus and the greater Toledo community, Mr. O’Donnel said.
Each club draws upward of 100 students during the school year to help make the sandwiches and assemble the lunches. Some of them help pass out the lunches at the Main Library. The duties are performed on the two campuses on alternating weeks.
“From what I’ve seen, a lot of people are extremely excited about it,” Mr. O’Donnel of Miamisburg, Ohio said. He said it is especially popular with fraternities and sororities looking for service projects.
His fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, recently notified him that he will be a 2013 recipient of a national Brother Fellow award for his efforts. The award will be presented during the fraternity’s national convention this July 31-Aug. 4, Mr. O’Donnel said.
“Bringing it to campus has been huge,” Mr. O’Donnel said.
Food for Thought relies on donations but is coming up with unconventional ways of raising money.
A good example was Thursday’s Jam City!, a sold-out event at The Blarney Irish Pub on Monroe Street.
Some of metro Toledo’s top gourmet chefs got into a friendly cook-off, much like they do for Share Our Strength’s annual Taste of the Nation event at the Toledo Club, which also raises money to help feed the needy.
But at Jam City!, chefs were required to use peanut butter and jelly as their main ingredients.
Food for Thought has been looking for a signature fund-raising event. It may have found that in Jam City!
“I’m absolutely thrilled with the response,” Mr. Melden said.
More than 300 tickets, starting at $30, were sold.
Contact Tom Henry at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6079.