Every Saturday, a handful of people distribute peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the bus station at Cherry and Huron streets in downtown Toledo. “We’ve not missed a Saturday in 13 years,” Food for Thought’s executive director, Tonya Scherf, says. “That’s a lot of Saturdays and a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”
Such is one of the routines of Food for Thought, a small but mighty nonprofit that in May marked its 13th year of operation. It is meeting challenges, celebrating successes, and facing a future in flux. Scherf, its still-new director who started last November, brings over 15 years of nonprofit experience with her and is excited to continue serving the community through this work.
Scherf said a hallmark of Food for Thought is the level of dignity and respect with which patrons are treated—harkening back to the first days of the nonprofit, when the initial group and succeeding volunteers and directors built relationships with those who were served.
From her time as a child going to a food bank with her single mother in a sudden change of fortune, Scherf knows how important it is for food bank patrons to be treated well. “I’ve been in their shoes. I understand the importance of being treated with dignity and respect, particularly in a time of need.”
The Food for Thought story started when a small group of people decided to do something tangible to care for the poor, Scherf explains. They wanted to take seriously what they felt was their responsibility to address the needs of the hungry. So they made and packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and took to Toledo’s streets. This original group found people who were hungry for not only food, but also for attention and friendship, and that these people showed up every week for the group’s sandwiches and conversation. Scherf says the originators “stumbled onto something”: the need for food not only for the body, but also for the spirit. Often poverty and hunger are symptoms of a greater problem: isolation. Food for Thought addresses the obstacle of isolation by developing relationships and building community.
Food for Thought has expanded to today include nine mobile food pantries. With a central office at Trinity Episcopal Church on Adams Street and a warehouse at Lott Industries on Hill Avenue, Food for Thought staff—two full-time, one part-time—and any number of volunteers arrange for monthly mobile food pantry collaborations with churches and schools.
In May, Scherf says, Food for Thought began working with other sites that may bring the number of pantry partnerships to 11.
Food for Thought offers what it calls a choice pantry. “Instead of someone coming in saying ‘I have a family of four’ and receiving a bag of predetermined groceries, the person is paired with a volunteer who walks them through—like grocery shopping. Sometimes a person who comes into a food pantry feels they don’t have the right to choose, that they should be happy with what they get. We want people to make their own choices,” Scherf says.
Food for Thought is also different in that their pantry patrons are not restricted by their ZIP codes or limited to a once-per-month visit. “It doesn’t matter where you live or if you visit more than one pantry in a month,” Scherf says. “If you identify that you need food, we’ll give you food. No one is ever turned away.”
In 2019, Food for Thought served more than 19,000 people, Scherf says. 2020 is bringing new challenges because of the coronavirus restrictions, which have forced Food for Thought to change some of its procedures. The pantry sites are currently operating in a drive-through model, where volunteers pre-bag grocery items for added safety. But patrons can have items added or removed from the bags to suit the needs of them and their families. “They still have a choice,” Scherf says, adding that Food for Thought has “every intention” of returning to the grocery-shopping style when restrictions are lifted.
Coronavirus or not, Food for Thought’s challenges remain the same. “The challenge is making sure we’re meeting everyone’s needs,” Scherf says, “particularly as that need continues to grow. Often people need more than food. They need friendship and a sense of belonging. We want to make sure the community knows we’re here for them. Our desire is to feed the hungry in a ‘thoughtful’ way.”
Food for Thought offers more than food and friendship. “We offer opportunities for people to donate money, food, and time. There always will be people who are hungry.”
There is an upside for those who help Food for Thought. “The reward is knowing that we’ve made a difference in someone’s life,” she says. She offers this example: A caller left a voice message to say he had recently lost his job and for the first time went to a Food for Thought pantry. “He was so grateful that we were there, and that the person who helped him was so respectful and so kind. The caller starting crying. We made such a difference for this person who never needed us before. That we helped and he was treated with dignity and respect is why we do this.”
To donate to Food for Thought, contact the office at 419-972-0022,
Dennis Bova is a retired newspaper reporter, columnist, and copy editor.