SAFE Food for All
By: Lynn Tao and Livia Zhao
At first glance, it may seem like SAFE Food Pantry is simply a normal food pantry in Howard County, Maryland. Unbeknownst to many, SAFE actually stands for Supplying Allergy-Friendly and Emergency meals, and this is exactly what this unique food pantry aims to do. Tiffany Holtzman is the founder and Executive Director of SAFE Food Pantry. In her role, Holtzman is in charge of the future and expansion of the organization. She works to find partnerships and build relationships to strengthen the non-profit and impact a wider audience.
The road to creating SAFE Food Pantry has not been an easy one, but Holtzman has worked hard to overcome her challenges and create a better life for other people facing the same problems as herself.
“Back in 2004 … I experienced a lot of [medical issues] … I [learned] that I have multiple food allergies and I'm extremely sensitive to gluten. I had to step away from a career in government contracts because of being so sick … I ended up going back to college at Howard Community College. I went into their entrepreneurship program, and [for a project] the instructor wanted us to create a nonprofit organization. And I just got to thinking about my own personal journey, how hard it would be if my personal food supply was gone, then realizing that there are people who are hurting, every single day, and that I could help them through a food pantry.”
Ever since its founding in 2014, SAFE Food Pantry has been serving those in the community with special dietary restrictions due to health concerns.
“The thought behind Safe Food Pantry was to serve people who have food allergies, celiac disease, or gluten intolerance and weren't able to be served by a local food pantry,” says Holtzman.
Although their main goal is to serve as a non-profit food pantry, SAFE’s mission is far more than just handing out food. Community education and advocacy for people facing similar issues as herself are also problems that Holtzman has always tried to tackle through SAFE Food Pantry.
“Our mission is to educate, inspire, and engage the community about the need for gluten-free and allergy-friendly food and provide that safe food to those who need it… We've had to put those a little bit on hold with the whole [COVID-19] thing, but usually, we have what we call Food for Thought education sessions... These are free education sessions that people can attend on topics that relate to diet, health, nutrition, and things that are related to our mission overall.”
As of now, SAFE is building partnerships with other food banks and non-profits in order to expand and increase the range of impact.
“Our first partner is the Howard County Food Bank. They are the largest provider of food here in Howard County, serving under usual circumstances around 25 to 30,000 households per year… We have dedicated shelf space within the [food bank], to serve clients. We also have an emergency food pantry location. Also, in Howard County, we were able to serve clients of other nonprofit organizations, and we recently signed a partnership agreement with a food pantry in Baltimore County.”
“The thought behind Safe Food Pantry was to serve people who have food allergies, celiac disease, or gluten intolerance and weren't able to be served by a local food pantry”- Tiffany Holtzman.
Before the pandemic, SAFE Food Pantry collected and directly donated food to its clients. But due to health and safety concerns, SAFE has had to adapt to a new system of achieving its mission. Fortunately, with Holtzman’s leadership, the quick turnaround has been a successful one.
“We offered a grocery store gift card program to all of our current clients, and we gave them the option to choose from four grocery stores for a $50 gift certificate… to purchase food that they needed. Then once we were able to establish a pre-bagged system at the Howard County Food Bank, that’s essentially what we’ve been offering.”
When founding SAFE Food Pantry, one of Holtzman’s biggest challenges was gathering enough support to move her organization forward and to raise awareness in the community.
“With any new organization, you're always struggling … to reach out to the community. Raising money is always a big challenge. I'm not a professional fundraiser by any means, and the staff [are all volunteers]; [they] are wonderful people and they give with their hearts, but they have other things in their lives as well. Trying to propel the organization forward is always a challenge, but it's definitely a mission that I'm committed to along with our volunteers.”
Holtzman also provides some very important advice for students who are considering volunteering or starting their own non-profit organization.
“I recommend finding a nonprofit that you're passionate about and volunteering there first to learn more about volunteer management and dynamics. But if you're truly interested in… building a nonprofit organization, I highly encourage you to find a mentor. Find somebody who's been there before and who you aspire to be like. [They don’t] necessarily have to [match] your exact nonprofit mission… but find someone who inspires you and can tell you the realities because it's not easy. Some days are very emotionally challenging and a real mentor will be there and tell you to just take a break, take a step back, and continue on because you are truly helping people.”
Despite the many challenges and obstacles, at the end of the day, the most rewarding part of Holtzman’s job is seeing how she’s helped so many clients. She continues to work even harder to ensure her clients always feel accepted and supported by SAFE Food Pantry.
“When I'm having a really hard day and things are too stressful, it’s the clients that bring me back and focus me on continuing this mission. There are people who have dealt with a lot of health challenges over the years; they've had people tell them it’s all in their head. To be able to provide food to a client that meets their dietary requirements, you know, I've had people cry. People are just so happy to be accepted for who they are.”