Students with a need throughout the Webster City School District, kindergarten through 12th grade, are receiving assistance getting their nutritional requirements met through something called the Backpack Program. Once a month, volunteers put together sacks of food such as macaroni and cheese, crackers, fruit cups, oatmeal and more, which are discreetly distributed to students in the program, every Friday.
“There is a need,” says Todd Hartnet, food service director for the Webster City School District. “There are a lot of kids that are not eating properly. We see it here every day, kids that are hungry. We can’t imagine what it’s like on the weekends, especially on a long weekend like Labor Day.”
Now in its third year, the program has been very successful. It was started after Superintendent Mike Sherwood, Trinity Lutheran Church Pastor Mike Kroona and Lori Hartnet, food service director at the high school, recognized and started discussing the problem. Acting on the need came the idea, which has been utilized by other school districts, then a committee, which includes Kroona, Hartnet, and volunteers Deb Peterson and Gayle Olson.
With the financial support of the Ministerial Society, the Des Moines Food Pantry and generous donations from the community, the Backpack Program has gone from helping 23 students the first year, to the current 160. About $1,000 a month covers the costs, according to Hartnett.
It takes additional volunteers — such as the Kiwanis, who each month, deliver large totes filled with bags of food to the schools, the W.C. wrestling team, unloading a semi-load of donated food, and individuals to help pack the bags — to make the program work.
Parents can sign their children up at the beginning of the year to be included in the program. However, students who may not have been signed up are included simply because a need has been observed by school staff, as have the benefits of the program.
When elementary school students receive their sack of food, which is placed in their backpacks, they are pretty excited. For older students, the confidentiality is very important. It is sometimes harder for them to accept the food.
“But it is about the need,” says Hartnett.