SHERIDAN — Food insecurity is not only about food. Without proper nutrition, children don’t have the tools they need for mental, emotional and physical development.

In addition to being hungry, there are students in Sheridan County who struggle with self-image because they can’t afford the same clothes as their peers. Others’ grades might fall, because they are unable to focus on their schoolwork. Some may see their parents struggling to choose between spending money on food, rent or medical care.

With this in mind, The Food Group of Sheridan offers more than food. This Christmas, the nonprofit gave 135 students $100 in Chamber Bucks, for a total of $13,500, before the holiday.

The children were free to spend the money as they chose, perhaps on gifts or a lunch out, or maybe on a luxury for themselves.

“We feed our children’s bellies, but we also need to feed their brains,” The Food Group board President Arin Waddell said.

The gift was born out of The Food Group’s literacy programs, during which children are gifted a book perfectly matched to their reading level on their teacher’s recommendation.

For Sheridan’s younger students, books were a welcome holiday gift, but for teenagers, the books lost their impact. For a time, The Food Group gifted older students a $25 Walmart card, but decided to do things differently late last year.

“Three of us went to talk about The Food Group’s Christmas gift at the John C. Schiffer Collaborative School, and one staff member said, ‘Why don’t you guys do Chamber bucks?’ That was one heck of an idea,” Waddell said.

Because retailers in Sheridan focus on high quality, beautiful items, The Food Group discussed increasing the gift. The leadership wondered if they could do $50, or even $100.

“We went from 26 kids to 135 kids this year,” Waddell said. “That is $13,500 in Chamber bucks. That is a huge amount of money.”

The Food Group approached donors, letting them know that each student would have the autonomy to spend the gift as they saw fit.

“One donor, she said, ‘I have no judgement on how these kids will spend their gift,’” Waddell said. “And one of our moral codes at The Food Group is that we trust and believe everybody we serve. When you are part of The Food Group, it is 100 percent anonymous, and that trust and belief in kids that they will use the food that we give, the books that we send and now, this cash gift, well, is part of it.”

Waddell said her organization believes in the kids of Sheridan County.

“We believe in them, and we want to make a paradigm shift around poverty. We want to trust them and we want to nourish them in more than just food. We are nourishing their spiritual growth,” she said. “And using these Chamber Bucks, that is putting the money right back into the people who support our vision and are our core support.”

Michelle Maneval, who owns several downtown businesses including The Sports Stop, said she had a shopper use the money almost to the day that she learned of The Food Group’s gift.

“I thought it was a really cool thing that they gave away Chamber bucks to keep the money local. It’s great, instead of giving them an open Visa card, they kept the gift within the Chamber membership,” she said. “We had a customer that was really sweet, and he didn’t tell me the Chamber Bucks he was using was from The Food Group, but I knew that it was. He had four or five small items, and you could definitely tell that he was shopping for those he loved.”

David Peterson, a social studies teacher at the John C. Schiffer Collaborative School, said that he handed out 20 envelopes containing the $100 gift certificate.

“It was a pretty phenomenal thing that The Food Group was able to do, to provide this,” he said. “Most students, when they received it, were stunned, to the point of giving applause and taking their breath away.”

One student told the front office she’d never before held that much money in her own hands. Giving a teenager autonomy, and letting them know that The Food Group and their school trusted them to spend this money how they choose, while also nourishing their self esteem and self worth, is priceless. It’s that larger picture Peterson said he’s seen volunteers with The Food Group emphasize over and over.

“My job as an educator doesn’t become easier, but I can focus on other issues when kids aren’t hungry,” Peterson said. “Here at the alternative school, where we have unique learners to begin with, if I know they have food and nourishment on that physical level, I can start working on the learner. I can work on emotional needs. If you can’t take care of that baseline stuff, you are not going to get to that other stuff we want to have our students doing.”

Even with all its work over the years, the gift this year was exceptionally generous, he said.

“We initially asked for gifts for 15 students, I think, but as we looked into this, we identified more and more students who could benefit. The Food Group never bat an eye, and said, ‘When can we deliver?’” Peterson said. “It was stunning in how they reacted, and how supportive they were. It was also stunning in the amount that the community and the Food Group was willing to give these kids.”