The Backpack Buddies program may run out of money by the end of December, according to organizer Terry Moehnke.
The program, which is overseen by Fort Dodge Noon Sertoma, a nonprofit civic organization, began in early 2010 and provides food over the weekends to school kids in the free and reduced school lunch program. Because of the demand, it has grown every year.
"The program is a viable program. We've been in existence for three years, but ongoing expenses keep climbing. Unfortunately it's harder and harder to get funding for the program," Moehnke said. "We have enough funding to get to the end of the year, but after that we could be facing a little bit of a problem."
-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
Susan Hrabak, left, and Saydie Elliott pack sacks of food onto a cart for the Backpack Buddies program. They will distribute the food to 93 students’ lockers to take home with them over the weekend. The food is packed into large plastic crates by volunteers and delivered to various schools by school personnel.
"This year we've seen more demand, and more schools are involved," he said. "The number of kids asking for food has increased."
In January 2010, the program started out giving 50 food bags a week to children at Riverside Elementary School. In January 2011, the program expanded to other elementary schools.
This year, the program covers all five public elementaries, St. Edmond Elementary and Fair Oaks Middle School.
At a glance:
Backpack Buddies feeds students in seven schools
500 food bags weekly
$3.75 average cost per bag
About $1,875 per week, or $75,000 for the school year
The program may run out of funding by January
What's in the meal?
Twelve items per week:
Two food items, like a can of soup or a ravioli/spaghetti meal
Two fruit cups
Two juices cups. "We try to use 100 percent juice, but the price is increasing on that," Moehnke said.
Two breakfast items, normally a Pop Tart and a breakfast cereal of some kind
A cookie. "We always give them a cookie, because they are kids," he said.
Every two to three months, a new toothbrush; sometimes people donate toothpaste.
"They're getting about 90 bags a week over at Fair Oaks," Moehnke said. "Our demand last year, we were at 300 bags a week - just short of $1,500 a week. This year we're at 500 bags, so we're spending $2,000 a week just on food expenses."
That works out to about $75,000 for the 39-week program, he said.
Support for the program comes from groups such as the Walmart Foundation, Valero Energy, the Study Club and the First Evangelical Free Church. The First Covenant Church donated more than $9,000 to cover a previous year at Riverside Elementary, Moehnke said, and continues to support the program.
The number of kids eligible for free and reduced-price meals provides a guideline for how many students can get Backpack Buddies meals, and that number keeps climbing.
"Two thousand two hundred twenty-five kids out of the 3,700 at the school from k-12 are eligible for free and reduced priced meals. So 59 percent of the children in school are getting two meals a day provided by the free and reduced (price) meals program," he said. "Which is startling."
The program is important to Fair Oaks Middle School, said Assistant Principal Jennifer Willand.
"With the way economic hardships have increased in this community, we have many students who are not receiving as much food at home," said Willand. "You know with the free and reduced lunch program here at school, they can get breakfast and lunch, but on the weekends they don' t have that option. So by giving them the Backpack Buddies they get the extra food that they need.
"We've had a great turnout. The students are excited about it."
Every week, school counselor Susan Hrabak and Bridges Care Manager Saydie Elliot deliver more than 90 bags of food directly into students' lockers.
Willand said, "Every application we've gotten, we've submitted, and they have provided for."
"Basically we don't turn anybody down that needs the food." Moehnke said. "The schools make the decision as far as which students would benefit from the food packages."
Is the school worried about the funding problems?
"Absolutely. That is a concern," Willand said. "Especially since there are so many students with the need."
"That's always a concern, but Fort Dodge is such a great community (Moehnke) always finds a way to make it work," she added.
The program is important to them because all children deserve a chance to succeed. Hrabak said.
"You really can't think that well when your stomach is empty," she said. "Just because someone doesn't have a lot of money it doesn't mean they're not exceptional children."
"They deserve all the help they can get," she added. "Besides, they're doing it on their own. Some people work three jobs just to keep their family healthy and safe, and it's hard to find a job sometimes. But through education, you can find a good job."
Moehnke has applied for local grants, and is seeking more churches and civic organizations to sponsor the program.
"Part of problem is, to sustain the program, rather than have me scramble every year looking for money, it would be nice if had ongoing relationships where we could budget and buy in bulk ahead of time," he said. "It's frustrating because there's a lot of need, and I think it's a very valuable, important program. I hate to see it go by wayside because of funding. I think the community would be more supportive if they knew the need."