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As long as child hunger persists, none of us can truly rest.

Feeding Empty Little Tummies

President & CEO Kim Bailey is an advocate of creating loving and empathetic communities, something Feeding Empty Little Tummies (F.E.L.T.) has achieved in Manatee County, Florida. Winn-Dixie has supported F.E.L.T. through its Community Bag and Bloomin’ 4 Good Programs.

Tell us about Feeding Empty Little Tummies.

In 2010 Jane Evers, who was battling stage four breast cancer, read an article about a school in the middle of the state where the school nurse had the same children coming in daily stating they didn’t feel well; she was concerned that there was a major health problem. She researched and found out that they weren’t getting enough food at home. This was before the State of Florida had free breakfast and lunch in schools.

When Jane read this, she turned to her husband Bill, who was a previous mayor of Bradenton, and said, “Surely we don’t have a problem like that in Manatee County.” But upon research and checking with the school board, they realized that a lot of children registered for school were actually homeless. They did not have a normal, regular address where they resided. So, on her dining room table, battling stage four cancer, she started the charity.

She started in three elementary schools with 70 students, and now we’re in 57 Manatee County schools. Last week we fed 1,364 children. Jane was petite in stature but had a personality like no other. When she passed away, her board and her family did not want to continue the charity without her. One of the first contributors and community leaders who helped Jane start the charity had worked with me in the past. She was a very good friend of mine, and said, “I think I’ve got the person that can help you.” Elaine Ackle invited me, Jane and Bill to lunch to discuss the mission of F.E.L.T. Nine years later, I’m still here.

Now we have our weekend backpack program. We make sure the kids have two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners and snacks, and they receive that on Friday. We only have two employees here at FELT and we have about 60 to 80 volunteers. On Wednesdays we prepare the warehouse and food items and on Fridays they pack the bags, load them up in their personal vehicles and deliver them to schools all over our community.

Food costs were $5,000 a week a year ago. COVID 19 changed everything! Our weekly food costs are now $10,000 to $12,000 per week, and we have been informed that there will be a minimum increase of 20% this upcoming school year.

What sets you apart from other nonprofits in your community?

What sets us apart is there are a lot of programs that feed the homeless and food insecure in our community, but we serve the students directly. We follow the McKinney-Vento Act that states that homeless children are defined as anyone not sleeping in a normal nighttime residence. So, it’s children living in multi-family situations or children being raised by their grandparents. We’ve had a lot of children go into foster care and be raised by other family members because we are one of the highest rated, opioid epidemic areas in the state. These are children living in pay-by-the-week motels and hotels; children that are living in vehicles with their families because some of the local housing situations separate men from the women and children, and there are big concerns of abuse in those situations. So, they would rather stay with the family in the vehicle than separate their families. And then throughout Manatee County all enforcement agencies know that there are a lot of tent cities, and this is where these people are residing. It’s a sad situation that a lot of families are literally one paycheck away from being homeless.

In addition, we have a lack of housing availability in our community, which is the case across the State of Florida. So that is adding to our high numbers of homeless.

What sets us apart is there are a lot of programs that feed the homeless and food insecure in our community, but we serve the students directly.

Tell us a story that illustrates the good work you are doing.

Due to the Privacy Act, we don’t really get to know the children that we are serving. But we were very blessed with the opportunity when the leadership committee of our local hospital did a food drive for us. One of the gentlemen on the leadership committee went home to tell his wife that they were doing a food drive for Feeding Empty Little Tummies and their two newly adopted daughters said, “Dad, that’s the program we received food from! We got our backpacks on Friday and our teacher told us to make sure that we ate the meals when we were supposed to and to make sure we stretched it out. So, we would have nutrition over the weekend so that when we went to school on Monday morning, we wouldn’t be hungry.”

Teachers also show the kids how to hide their food from other people that are around them. These children were able to finally tell someone this is what we received, and it did work. It did help us out through the weekend. And then they told their dad they wanted him to buy their favorite items, fruit roll-ups and ramen noodles. Those were their favorite things out of all the food we would send them. It was really sweet. So that’s what he purchased and added to the food drive.

What do you want people to know about Feeding Empty Little Tummies?

As I stated, there are only two employees here. We try to be really good stewards of the financial donations that we receive. We’re a very simple charity. We have hungry children in our community. We buy food, and we feed them. By buying food in bulk and partnering with companies like Sysco West Coast Florida, we are able to stretch the money that is sent to us so we can feed more children. We do appreciate food drives and are grateful for them, but we can reach more children through financial assistance. We are currently part of the Louis and Gloria Flanzer Philanthropic Trust. Any donations made to of $25 to $500 in the name of Feeding Empty Little Tummies will be matched equally by the Trust.

We also partner with a lot of different programs, like Dive into Reading, and provide snacks for all of those programs throughout the summer. And then with our food drives, if we receive food that isn’t backpack friendly, we have a F.E.L.T. Community Food Pantry where we reach out to families that need additional assistance and our seniors in the local community that need assistance. Nothing that is given to us is wasted. We share it, we give it away or we partner with other charities that also have a need.

We have Jr. Volunteer Program that not only assists local students with community service hours, it teaches them to have empathy for those less fortunate. Students from the Palmetto High School FBLA developed a program with us and won fourth place at their state convention.

This year we are partnering with the Manatee County School District to invite Exceptional Students to volunteer at F.E.L.T. and learn skills that will assist them in securing work after they graduate.

Nothing that is given to us is wasted. We share it, we give it away or we partner with other charities that also have a need.

How will you use the funds raised from the Winn-Dixie Bloomin’ 4 Good program?

When donations come in that are unrestricted, like through the Bloomin’ 4 Good program, we make sure that it goes for purchasing food. We like everyone to know that we honor their gracious donations to us.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I think in most communities people don’t realize the need, or they feel that it’s not their responsibility to worry about it, that it’s someone else’s job. But if COVID taught us nothing else, it taught us to be who we need to be for our community at any given time. And with feeding children, especially during COVID, keeping these children healthy and making sure they get the caloric intake that they need over the weekends is one of the big battles that we fought to make sure to keep them healthy.

Children have no control of the situation in their lives right now, but we can definitely have empathy and take care of those who are most needy in our community. And right now, it’s children that are going without food. As a community filled with generous hearts, letting the public know the immediate nutritional needs, we can show the children that someone cares. I think that’s the basis of being a loving and empathetic community.

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Kim Bailey has a long history of service and civic engagement with organizations both local and abroad. She started working with F.E.L.T nine years ago as Director of Development. She then became F.E.L.T.’s Executive Director, and today Kim guides the success of F.E.L.T as President and CEO.