Some Fort Dodge school children are hungry, but it's not because of the calories in the school cafeteria food. It's because they have no food at home.
To help, Fort Dodge Noon Sertoma, a nonprofit civic organization, has resumed its Backpack Buddies program. The program provides bags of food for children to take home for the weekend. Items include a can of soup, boxed cereal, and healthy snacks and juice boxes.
"The program unfortunately is still a viable program," Terry Moehnke, Noon Sertoma organizer, said. "We continue to have an increased need."
-Messenger file photo
Volunteer Katherine Gross, of Fort Dodge, works on filling bags for the backpack program at the former Hillcrest Elementary School in this Messenger file photo. Fort Dodge Noon Sertoma is resuming its Backback Buddies program to provide food for local school children.
On Wednesday, volunteers from Noon Sertoma and Valero Energy helped pack bags for delivery to all Fort Dodge Community School District elementary schools, St. Edmond Elementary and Fair Oaks Middle School.
"We delivered 166 bags this morning to two different schools," Moehnke said Thursday. "We deliver every Wednesday and Thursday and they distribute them to the students on Friday. It's once a week," Moehnke said. "We'll probably end up doing five to 600 hundred bags a week."
The amount increased from 300 bags a week last year with the inclusion of Fair Oaks Middle School in its program this year. At Fair Oaks, 60.51 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
According to Moehnke, the need is great.
"If you talk to the teachers, the school administrators, they'll tell you that a lot of these kids, the only regular meals they get are through the school system, either the school lunches or breakfasts," he said. "A lot of kids on weekends do not have access to food. Basically, they are under-nourished on weekends when they don't have the school to provide food for them."
Butler Elementary, having absorbed the most students from the repurposed Riverside Elementary this year, now has the great percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch, at 72.9 percent.
"That's kind of our guideline for the need of the program," Moehnke said.
Cooper Elementary has the lowest percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch, but it is still more than half of its students, at 50.88 percent.
"One of the nurses at Cooper, when I first started this program a couple of years ago, told me of a student she'd been watching that lost seven pounds over Thanksgiving break," Moehnke said. "And Cooper is in a nice area of town. It's not an area considered low-income."
Pat Reding, Duncombe Elementary principal, attests a need does exist among his students, some of whom are benefiting from the donated food.
"I think it's a fantastic program," he said. "Our young people who partake of this program are indeed very fortunate to have the opportunity to take these items home. Many of our families, unfortunately, do struggle more than we would like to see. It's great to see that kind of support."
He added, "It's a program I hope can continue, because there certainly is a need. I know that it's much appreciated by many individuals."
The lack of nutritious foods, or any food, on the weekend negatively impacts the student's ability to learn, Moehnke said.
"Kids come in, and they're lethargic on Monday morning," he said. "Nutrition is very vital for the learning process, to keep the kids active and alert. When they're hungry, they're distracted and not learning."
Backpack Buddies also helps to address the increasing problem of childhood obesity, which shares some root causes.
"The reason we're seeing so many overweight kids is because they're eating convenience food rather than nutritious food," Moehnke said. "What we're trying to do is provide them with food that is fairly nutritious and loaded with vitamins."
Doug Van Zyl, FDCSD superintendent, said it is "fantastic" how the community supports its needy children "in such a great way."
"It's a challenge for school districts, to want to make sure all our kids are educated and taken care of well when maybe they have a rumbly stomach because they're hungry," he said.
Van Zyl said it is unfortunate the need exists at all.
"We would prefer that we didn't have students who had to worry about where their food was going to be coming from, but we also want to have folks aware that it's there and if they truly need it, that we want them to contact their schools and get their kids taken care of," he said.
He added, "Everybody has a possibility in their life where they're going to go through a crisis or struggle, and we want to make sure those kids are taken care of, as well."