Food insecurity


Episode 77: Filling In the Blanks

Did you know that there are over 13 million children in the United States who live with hunger? One in five children does not know where or if their next meal will come. Those facts are shocking to anyone who hears them. However, it is the rare person or people who actually act when hearing those numbers. Today’s guests not only experience food insecurity they have acted to create a nonprofit called Filling In Blanks.

Tina Kramer (left) and Shawnee Knight (right) Founders of Filling In the Blanks

Join us for an inspirational conversations about two next door neighbors who are changing lives and the face of hunger.


Here are a few highlights from our conversation:


Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Filling In the Blanks does?

Tina Kramer: Shana and I started Filling In the Blanks 11 years ago. And what we do is we provide food on the weekends to children that are struggling with food insecurity. So we provide a bag of food for the kids ages preschool through high school, that receive meals during the week at school, but don’t have anything over the weekend. So we’re covering that weekend meal gap.

Charity Matters: Did Either of you grow up in families that were very involved in their communities?

Shawnee Knight:  My family was always thoughtful of other people, but we didn’t do a lot in terms of being out in the community as much as Tina and I are now. I grew up in a single family household and so I kind of understood.  I was on the free and reduced lunch and so I understand the pressures that these families are facing. I think that really was kind of one of my main motivating factors for starting Filling In The Blanks. Being in Fairfield County, CT there’s so many different volunteer opportunities and ways to give back. 

Tina Kramer: I grew up in a similar household as Shawnee with a single mom who works all the time. My grandmother pretty much raised me. So there wasn’t really an opportunity to give back to the community at that point in time. When we moved to Connecticut, there are so many volunteer opportunities and that’s where I really learned about volunteering.  We decided that we wanted to do something together and  that’s how we founded it Filling in the Blanks. 

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start Filling In the Blanks?

Shawnee Knight: We were riding with a friend into the city,  and we were just talking about sports and our kids. And my friend was saying,” The other students on the opposing team don’t often have snacks. So they would bring snacks for the other team.” I was kind of like,” Wait a minute. There’s kids in Fairfield County that don’t have food. Like how I don’t understand that? That can’t be possible. Look at where we live?”

I think Tina and I were at the age where our kids were getting a little bit older. So we were both trying to find something to do, we were next door neighbors.  We did some research and learned that there really are food insecure children in our community. And for us, the thought of a kid going without food is just shameful. It’s just wrong.

Tina Kramer: So we saw an article in a magazine about a nonprofit that was a national organization that provided food on the weekends to children. So we became program coordinators. That was our first step and we did the fundraising. We did all the purchasing, but the national organization was more of the parent company.

We would give them our fundraising efforts and they would reimburse us. And we are very type A, we are very gung ho about projects we work on.  We decided after probably two or three weeks to use the information from the national organization structure on how to run a nonprofit because neither one of us had ever run a company or any kind of nonprofit before. So that was our stepping stone to the blank.

So we learned how to incorporate our trademark, our logo, articles of incorporation and bylaws. We surround ourselves with good people to help us structure all these things. We started packing bags in my house for 50 kids. We’re tying grocery bags, going to the dollar stores, Costco and loading our Suburbans up which we’re dragging on the floor. And we just learned as we went, and it was so very grassroots in the beginning. 

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Shawnee Knight: I think definitely finding food suppliers and finding families. and reaching more families. We needed to get a warehouse because we had outgrown Tina’s living room. We had too many kids, and you have to store these bags. We just needed more of a structure for that. And so I think there were challenges, just in doing and getting things done. Realizing people don’t get things done as quickly as we wanted them to get done. 

Some of the biggest challenges we face now are reaching more parents.  There’s definitely still a lot of parents who don’t know about us and our services.. And I think procuring food, and food costs rising because we purchase all of our food. So we’re fundraising to buy food and with food costs going up,  we have to fundraise even more.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Tina Kramer:  I don’t think we mentioned this earlier but Shawnee and I are both volunteers. We don’t get paid to run Filling in the Blanks.  We have a real desire to help the kids because we both at some point in our lives dealt with food insecurity, one of us in our childhood, the other in our adult life. That really fuels us because we know what these parents are struggling with, and how hard it is. Just to wonder, can I feed my child today? Or do I have to pay the electric bill? So it’s really ingrained in who we are.

We have a great staff that surrounds us and a great group of volunteers. We have a leadership committee of about 10 people, mainly women. Then we have 11 full time employees that really help with the day to day. Besides the bags were packing, we have 7000 volunteers come through our doors on a yearly basis. Wow. So it’s not just Shawnee and I, and our desire, it’s our community. We’re all lifting up our community and the surrounding communities. And that’s really what fuels us. 

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had and what your impact has been? 

Shawnee Knight:  We do a lot of surveys, to the families,  the children, parents,  the social workers and teachers at the schools. So we’re able to measure some of those outcomes for students. Then we track the number of meals and we’ve served over 3 million meals. Every week we have 7500 kids that get our weekend meal bags. We’ve launched our Mobile Food Pantry, fresh food on the move. We’ve been distributing about 20,000 pounds of food at each site, which they operate twice a month.

We’ve partnered with Stanford Health to provide various health and wellness wraparound services, so we’re able to see how many people they register for or how many flu shots they gave out. It is really hard because we don’t have access to kids grades, so it’s hard to measure that. But we do measure things like the teacher saying that the child is less disruptive in class.. We’ve had a teacher tell us a story of this. One child she had that just was out of sorts at school and she kind of made him in charge of helping her with the backpack club as they call it, which is when they get their bags. And she said, that she noticed a change in his personality and his self confidence was improved. So we hear little antidote or things like that. Then from our pre-programmed surveys and post-program surveys, we see an increase in happiness or of the child’s well being.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Tina Kramer:  It’s a simple concept that everyone should have access to food and healthy food items. Our volunteers are little kids to adults. We make sure that we can create volunteer opportunities for them to create an impact within Filling in The Blanks.. We’ve created snack bag programs, in addition to our regular weekend meal program. So the younger kids can have a packing event at their home and pack little snacks in a little brown bag that gets distributed to the kids too. So we’re trying to make sure that our volunteers feel the impact that they are creating.

As Shawnee mentioned, we just started a mobile pantry back in October, and we’re serving 1000s of families through that initiative. Through that we’re able to communicate directly to the families and the parents. They tell us the impact that the 50,000 pounds of food they get at the mobile pantry has on their family. Many turned around and now want to know how they can volunteer with us, and how they can give back and how they can help. And that’s just so rewarding. It comes full circle.

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for your organization, what would that be?

Shawnee Knight: For us to be out of business.

Tina Kramer: This year alone we will serve over a million meals and the need is not not going away. We’ll probably serve about 10,000 kids this year, every weekend. We created a year round program for all. Our big dream is potentially it’s on the back burner  but I’ll put it out there. We would like to franchise to other states or communities, or do some drop shipping/fulfillment centers to have food delivered directly to the schools. We  would take away the need for additional trucks and drivers. We’re trying to figure out how do we replicate or duplicate our program outside of our like immediate area. 

Charity Matters: Do you have a Phrase or Motto that you live by?

Tina Kramer:One of our board members always said, “If you can, you should.” And that  kind of really encompasses Filling in the Blanks. Because really, anyone, a little kid to a senior citizen can make a difference here, it’s packing the bag, spreading the word, liking something on social media, it doesn’t have to be dollars, it could just not just it can be your time, even if it’s five minutes. 

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Shawnee Knight:  I think so. I think we were nervous when we first started this. We didn’t know what to expect. You never know how much pressure you can take or how much weight your shoulders can hold. So I think we’ve grown a lot in that sense. I mean, we’re running a really big nonprofit with a big operating budget and expenses. You never know how much of that stress you can take and I think we’ve learned to stomach quite a bit of it.

Tina Kramer: We’re the perfect ying and yang. I think it’s given me a lot more confidence than I had before. I never thought I could run my own business and didn’t know how to read a spreadsheet. And now we’re dealing like Shawnee said, with a multimillion dollar budget. It’s given me confidence in who I am, not only here, but in normal life and at home. It’s just been a great learning experience over the past 11 years.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Tina Kramer: That people are good. And they want to do good.  I come from nothing and I’m not used to being encompassed or embraced by our community. This community that we’ve created together, really has shown me how good people are and how they’re always willing to help. It’s just a beautiful thing.

Shawnee Knight:  If you build it, they will come.





Copyright © 2024 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

Episode 55: Grass Roots Grocery

If you have been to the grocery store recently you know how insane food prices are these days. When eggs are $8.99 something isn’t right! When one New York school teacher realized that his students were going without food he decided to step up in a very big way. It turns out that 1 in 4 New Yorkers who are experiencing a food emergency can even access a food pantry.

Join us today to hear the inspirational conversation of one man’s journey from the classroom to major food distribution to serve thousands of meals to his neighborhood. Dan Zauderer is an inspiration for us all in his mission to get all of us to be neighbors helping neighbors.


Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Grass Roots Grocery does?

Dan Zauderer:  Our mission statement is to advance food justice by cultivating a community of neighbors helping neighbors. What that means in action, is it means neighbors coming together, in grassroots service.  Making sure that their fellow neighbors have enough food to eat.

There are two different programs that we do that do but it’s really just founded upon the notion that we all need to come together to to take a bite out of food insecurity. This is not something that big food pantries can do alone. It’s not something that we can just leave up to the policymakers. The  problem is so big, that the only way to really shift it is for everybody to be involved.

Whether it’s by people roping in their corporate workplace, reaching out to their local girl scout troops, taking a couple of hours out of their week  to help make sure that their neighbors are nourished and fed. That’s what this is about. It’s kind of a narrative shift focusing on on bottom up direct action from the people. it’s just basically about operationalizing this notion of neighbors helping neighbors and applying it specifically to the realm of food justice.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start Grass Roots Grocery?

Dan Zauderer:  It kind of begins with me having a career in the startup world, doing sales in New York.  So I set off into the startup world and I loved the element that involves working with people but I just hated the things that I was selling. I decided that I was going to stop everything, move out to Costa Rica, take a life break and teach English. I fell in love with teaching.

So I went back to Columbia University to get my Master’s in teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. I started working at a school called the American Dream School, in the South Bronx. The student  population is the children of mostly undocumented Central American and Mexican immigrants.  One day, I am walking home and I see one of my students on the sidewalk. Next to my students, I see that there’s this elderly woman who’s digging through trash can dumpster diving.

So, I reached out to my student the next day and I asked him to share about what I saw. He told me that the woman was his grandmother and then this was something  that was a normal activity. When Covid hit, I thought  how can I rally my family and friends around something that would be helpful to my student community?  I decided that we should just raise a bunch of money because I knew it wasn’t just this one student and there were other families who had to deal with food insecurity. We then found out that one out of every four families were cutting down on meals a few times every week in my school community.

Then I learned about community refrigerators, the idea is literally a fridge on the sidewalk put down by an organizer. You place a refrigerator into a local store and you get people to donate food that have extra. Then we rallied together staff, my own family and friends and said, “Alright, let’s start a community fridge in Mott Haven”. That’s the way that this was started  as a teacher’s passion project that ultimately was renamed Grass Roots Grocery.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Dan Zauderer: Funding is was a huge challenge.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Dan Zauderer:  A couple of things, one is my amazing girlfriend, my mom, my dad and family.  Having great people in my life is one thing. Another is the amazing community of volunteers. We’ve recruited over almost 3000 volunteers to help out  with this work and they light me up.  Whether it’s little kids, or high schoolers engaging in some kind of direct action to support their neighbors with food justice.

Every Saturday, we have what I call it produce party.  Where we come together with over 100 volunteers in a parking lot in the South Bronx. We unload a truck filled with excess surplus produce that we’ve picked up from the Hunts Point produce market, which is the biggest produce market in the country. Then every Saturday, we work together as volunteers to unload that truck and  to sort through all the food. After that, we load it up into the vehicles of our volunteer drivers. The drivers who come and bring it to our network of community liaisons.  

This past Saturday, I think we had 36 volunteer drivers. Wow. Over 100 people I want to say, and we delivered to I think it was 32 or 34. communities. So far, with not everybody reporting their numbers, we reached over 1000 families in that one Saturday. And I mean, that fuels me.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had and what your impact has been? 

Dan Zauderer:  For example, all of our volunteers that came out this past Saturday, they got an email saying that you moved about 10,000 pounds of excess produce to 34 different communities throughout Harlem, the Bronx, and reached over 1000 families through community leader liaisons. Those liaisons  gave out that food to their neighbors in need in the way that they thought best. So that’s something that every volunteer received. That happens every weekend. 

 This crew of community leaders, I call them grassroots grocers and they all have stories of their own. They’re all doing this work for free because they’re leaders in their community. They want to give food to their people in need and so they’re volunteers.

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for your organization, what would that be?

Dan Zauderer: The real dream is to end food insecurity. But that’s not going to be in my lifetime,  although it would be amazing. My dream is for this mindset of neighbors helping neighbors to promote food justice becomes ingrained into the the habit of people’s lives. And it’s already happening. We have families that are that are making sandwiches or that are taking leftover meals and putting them into Tupperware containers and filling the community fridges. People  taking time out of their Saturday once a month to join us in a produce party.

If it just became commonplace, right? It’s this idea that we all need to come together. We can’t just rely on these big food rescue trucks, big nonprofits and the policymakers.  It’s up to all of us, even if it’s just a couple hours a month. That’s really my dream is for that mentality to just wash over the world. 

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Dan Zauderer: The life lesson that I learned and that is just so important is to have meaning in the work that I do.  It’s really important for me to do something that this that that feels meaningful.  I’ve been sober for 12 years, and you know, starting a nonprofit is even harder than getting sober. 

I’m just so lucky that I created that this amazing community of neighbors helping neighbors. The fact that I can do this work and light people up and get people’s kids involved and spread this message. It is just what fills my cup. Centering on meaning and finding a way to remember all of the blessings of the work that you’re doing is what it’s all about.




Copyright © 2023 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.