Backpack Buddies program helps area young folks

When thinking about hungry children, you generally think about distant, poverty-stricken, third-world countries miles away from home, right? You don’t think that your friends, co-workers, neighbors or anyone else right here in Fort Dodge could be struggling to provide food for their families on a daily basis, do you? Unfortunately, this is a reality and it’s time that we face it.

Did you know that more than 58 percent of the students in the Fort Dodge Community School District are struggling with hunger every day? According to the last available data (April 30, 2014), Fort Dodge Community School District has 3,778 students enrolled and 2,185 (57.83 percent) of those children are eligible for free or reduced cost meals. Elementary and middle school children show a higher rate of dependency on assistance for their school lunches with 62.7 percent eligible (2,626 students total, 1,646 meet the guidelines) for the free or reduced fee structure. The fact this many children are deemed eligible for food assistance is a statistic that most members of the community are not aware of.

In 2011, the NEW Cooperative Foundation was established as the charitable giving entity of NEW Cooperative. The Foundation is committed to investing in organizations that are dedicated to youth and education, human services, and civic purposes that further enhance the quality of life in our member’s local communities. We strongly feel that helping feed hungry children right here at home is something we should be involved in. That is why NEW Cooperative has partnered with the Fort Dodge Noon Sertoma to bring you the first-ever Unite to Fight: Campaign Against Local Hunger, with all proceeds to benefit the Backpack Buddies program.

At NEW Cooperative, food is our business. Our membership is made up of more than 3,000 area farmers who are committed to providing food for our growing population. It makes sense that we would choose to help fight local child hunger. By partnering with the Fort Dodge Noon Sertoma organization – with their extensive network and community contacts – we hope to reach our goal of raising community awareness of local child hunger and providing financial assistance to the Backpack Buddies for the 2014-2015 school year.

The Backpack Buddies program is designed to supplement school breakfast and lunch programs by providing elementary age children with nutrient rich foods over weekends when many of these children may have little or nothing to eat. The program provides students with a bag of shelf stable, kid friendly food items every Friday during the school year (39 weeks). The typical bag includes nutritious food items such as: soup, ravioli, fruit cups, small boxes of cereal, fruit snacks, pudding cups and juice boxes. Toothbrushes and tooth paste have also been included on occasion. All of the food items are consumable without preparation and the children can easily provide food for themselves and in some cases, their younger siblings. At the present time there is not a centralized location to distribute the bags during the summer months, but it is our hope that we may be able to do this in the future.

The identities of the students who participate in the Backpack program are kept confidential. The families are asked to fill out questionnaires during the year to make sure the program is providing food that the children enjoy and to determine if any changes are suggested for the program.

The Backpack program in Fort Dodge distributed food for the first time on Jan. 15, 2010, to Riverside Elementary School. Utilizing the number of children receiving free or reduced price meals at the school (at the time more than 72 percent of the children were eligible), Riverside was determined to be the school that would benefit the most from the initial pilot program. Food Bank of Iowa offered to supply up to 50 bags of food per week for the remainder of the school year and the staff of the school contacted parents to determine their interest in participating in the program. Of the 184 children from Riverside deemed chronically hungry based on federal guidelines, 50 participated in the pilot program. The program was well received and we were able to expand the program into the other elementary schools in January 2011.

Last year, we provided more than 500 bags per week to seven schools (Middle School, Duncombe, Feelhaver, Butler, Riverside, St. Edmond Elementary and Cooper). Food is purchased locally at Hy-Vee and from Sam’s Club in Ames and is then stored at White Transfer and Storage. The food is transported to the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility where the volunteer inmates sort and pack into bags which are then taken to the schools for distribution on Friday afternoon. Typically, two weeks of food (1000-plus bags) are packed in approximately two hours.

Now that you know more about the Backpack Buddies program and why there is a very real need for it in the Fort Dodge Community School District, what can you do to help? We will be hosting the first annual Unite to Fight charity dinner event on Friday, Aug. 22 at Fort Frenzy. There will be dinner, a silent auction, and entertainment provided by the Midwest Dueling Pianos. We are looking forward to this event and are asking you to help us make it a huge success. Tickets are now available for purchase at the Fort Dodge NEW Cooperative office (2626 First Ave S.) and The Vision Center (25 S. 16th St.). They are $40 each, and all money will go directly to the Backpack Program. If you are unavailable to join us that night, any monetary donations will be gladly accepted and can be sent to the NEW Cooperative Foundation in care of Amy Pingel.

We urge you to step forward and support NEW Cooperative and the Fort Dodge Noon Sertoma in helping stop child hunger here in the Fort Dodge area. A number of area businesses and organizations have already come on board and shown their support of this event. We would like to thank Fort Frenzy, The Fort Dodge Community Foundation & United Way, and the 100 Women Who Care for all being Platinum level sponsors to date. We would also like to thank all of our Gold level sponsors so far, including Fort Dodge Ford Toyota, C & S Products, White Transfer & Storage, Rees Truck & Trailer, Blue Ribbon-Pelhams Water and the Drive to Feed Kids Campaign. There have been numerous other businesses that have sent donations as well. We truly appreciate all you have done so far.

Thank you in advance for your support of the Unite to Fight charity dinner event. Fort Frenzy will be rocking for a great cause on Friday, Aug. 22. We hope to see you there.

Amy Pingel is director of the NEW Cooperative Foundation. Dr. Terry Moehnke is program director of Backpack Buddies.