January 15, 2016 

What do greeting cards and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches have in common? Ask founder of Food for Thoughts Cards, NYU adjunct professor and alumna, Connie Charney (STEINHARDT ’80). The concept is simple; support good wishes with good will. When you buy a greeting card from Food for Thoughts Cards, the value equivalent of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is donated to an organization that helps feed the hungry. 

This month, we reached out to Professor Charney to gain a little more perspective on how she’s taking entrepreneurship and charitable causes to the next level. 

Can you talk a little bit about what you teach at NYU?

Since 2005, I’ve been teaching Orientation to Occupational Therapy, a weekly seminar course designed to introduce undergraduates to the field of OT. The course includes lectures, guest speakers, and visits to clinical sites where students meet occupational therapists in practice.  

I absolutely love this course—and the students enrolled in it. They are testing the water, exploring healthcare professions, and searching for a degree and career path through which they may positively impact the lives of the disabled. I’m honored to be a small part of that process.

How did you begin giving out sandwiches? What inspired you to tackle the problem of hunger?

I never set out to “tackle hunger.” I simply began packing a PB&J sandwich because I hated to walk by a hungry person without taking action. A homeless person once thanked me for the sandwich, but also for acknowledging his existence. That’s what it’s about for me. I see a hungry person and respond to it with a PB&J sandwich. It’s nice to know that someone is a little less hungry because of a simple gesture.

When did you decide to formalize your Give-A-Sandwich Days?

I guess you’d say Give-A-Sandwich Days were inspired by an undeniable need. In our nation, one in seven people struggles with hunger. By packing a sandwich on my Thursday commute to NYU, I was giving about 40 sandwiches a year to hungry people on the streets of New York City. There was so much more that needed to be done and I wanted to take my sandwich-giving up a notch. That’s when greeting cards entered the picture.

What inspired you to use greeting cards as a means to address the issue of hunger?

I’ve always loved sending greeting cards. The marriage of greeting cards and sandwich-giving was a natural fit. Send a card. Give a sandwich. It’s the perfect blending of my passions.

With the purchase of each giving-back card, the cash equivalent of a PB&J is donated to a food pantry, soup kitchen, or other organization that feeds the hungry. To date, through the sale of our giving-back greeting cards, the cash equivalent of over 23,000 PB&J sandwiches has been donated to those in need. It would have taken me more than 575 years to give as many sandwiches on my own. Food for Thoughts Cards accomplished that in less than three years.

Can you tell us about the logistics of founding Food for Thoughts Cards? Did you know you wanted to start your own company someday?

My goal was to give back and feed the hungry on a larger scale. Starting a company was simply the best way to make that happen.

One afternoon at my kitchen table, I sketched the bread outline for our greeting cards. I envisioned messages in the colors of PB&J, but from that point I needed the help of experts—a graphic artist, a lawyer, an accountant, a web designer, and others with skills that complemented my vision. Working together, we brought Food for Thoughts Cards to life. Now our cards are available in over 50 stores in 20 states. We’ve built a national audience through online sales and media exposure. People have been kind to us, enabling us to be kind to others.

What advice do you have for alumni who are interested in social entrepreneurship?

Partner with like-minded individuals is the best advice I can offer. For me, that includes small business owners with whom the giving-back concept resonates. When a store sells our cards, we empower them to feed the hungry in their community. They may select a local organization that feeds the hungry to be the recipient of our donation. One card equals one sandwich donated to feed a neighbor in need.

What do you consider your biggest accomplishments since graduating NYU?

I’ll be turning 60 next year, but I feel like I’m just getting started. I hope that my biggest accomplishment lies ahead!

What is your favorite NYU memory?

As a student, my favorite memories took place in Washington Square Park. The park was, and continues to be, the heart and soul of NYU student life.

I returned there as a young mother in the late 1980s, swishing down the playground slide with my daughter. My husband, Alan, is a professor at the NYU School of Medicine. We lived in faculty housing in Silver Towers for several years and the park was our backyard.

Now I see the park through the lens of a faculty member. Whether I’m sitting alone or sharing a bench with a student or a colleague, I continue to make memories there.