Tackling hunger one bag at a time

Unite to Fight fundraiser helps Backpack Buddies feed students

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
Dr. Terry Moehnke, program director for Backpack Buddies, left, with the help of Jessica Moffitt, president-elect of Fort Dodge Noon Sertoma, prepare bags of food for children who need them on weekends during the school year.

The percentage of children in Fort Dodge schools who are eligible for free and reduced lunch has not changed significantly in 10 years, according to Dr. Terry Moehnke.

“Unfortunately, the number of free and reduced meals in this city is about 60 to 65 percent,” Moehnke said. “That number has not dropped in the 10 years we have been doing the Backpack Buddies program. It has been very consistent. Some of the elementary schools have higher numbers. Riverside and Butler are relatively high numbers.”

And that means a large number of students are hungry, Moehnke, the Backpack Buddies program director, said.

The goal of the Backpack Buddies program is to tackle the problem of hunger by providing bags of food for students on weekends, while students are away from school.

“A lot of children are not able to have access to food on weekends,” Moehnke said. “That’s our primary goal, is to provide them with that nutrition.”

Unite to Fight, which is a combined effort between Fort Dodge Noon Sertoma and NEW Co-op Foundation, is the annual fundraiser that helps support the Backpack Buddies program.

Unite to Fight is Wednesday night inside the Cardiff Center at Fort Frenzy, 3232 First Ave. S. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. A meal catered by Olde Boston’s Restaurant and Pub will be served at 6 p.m.

The evening will feature live entertainment from Dinner Detective, a group that performs on a regular basis at Embassy Suites in Des Moines.

“They will integrate with the crowd,” Moehnke said. “And then surprisingly something will happen and someone in the crowd will be a suspect.”

He added, “It will be interactive. There will be an opportunity to play along and I think it will be a lot of fun.”

A silent auction will also be held.

Tickets are $25. Tickets can be purchased from Moehnke by calling his office at 955-6720.

The Backpack Buddies program has grown significantly since it was first introduced.

About 50 bags of food used to be prepared each week during the school year.

That number has climbed to 650 bags per week.

In recent years, Moehnke said he’s been fortunate to have extra help from Jessica Moffitt, of Fort Dodge.

“I am kind of grooming Jessica to help out quite a bit,” he said.

Moffitt is in charge of Household Hazardaous Matrials collection at the North Central Iowa Regional Sanitary Landfill.

She joined Fort Dodge Noon Sertoma almost three years ago.

“The program (Backpack Buddies) is one of the main reasons I looked into Noon Sertoma,” Moffitt said. “It’s a way to give back.”

She added, “It’s a program worth supporting because unfortunately the need is there.”

An estimated 97,000 pounds of food is distributed each year, Moehnke said.

And yet, Moehnke said there are still a number of children who aren’t being served.

“There is an ongoing need,” he said. “We only service about 25 percent of kids eligible for the program. And that’s either because they choose not to participate or don’t feel it’s needed in that particular family. Or maybe they just aren’t aware of the program. Every year in the fall, the school reaches out to families when they come in and are asked if they are interested in participating.”

The identities of the students who participate in the Backpack Buddies program are kept confidential, he said.

The food, which includes things like Pop-Tarts, fruit snacks, juice, and protein bars, is packed at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility.

“We have a group of lifers at the prison that have been working with us now for about seven years,” Moehnke said. “Every bag of food, we try to mix it up a little bit. But it’s hard to find affordable food that we can buy in bulk.”

Moehnke said about 12 items are included in each bag. Each bag costs about $4.

He said about $90,000 is spent during the 39 weeks school is in session.

Moehnke said hunger isn’t something that’s necessarily visible.

“We don’t have the obvious problems,” Moehnke said. “You don’t see children starving to death more or less in town, but there’s a lot of kids who go to bed hungry and a lot of kids that may not have food to eat when they are home alone on weekends.”

Moehnke is understanding of working families and their struggle.

“There’s a lot of single-family parents out there trying to make a living and pay their bills,” he said. “And unfortunately sometimes the kids are home alone. So we try to give them food that they can prepare themselves and make it somewhat nutritious. But it’s a definite problem. It’s a problem that isn’t just Fort Dodge. It’s across the country. One out of five children they say is food insufficient. Those are startling numbers in the heartland of America.”

He added, “It’s unfortunate that we have to do it, but we are glad to do it.”

What is Backpack Buddies?

Backpack Buddies is designed to supplement school breakfast and lunch programs by providing elementary-aged children with nutrient rich foods during 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, Pop-Tarts, fruit snacks, pudding cups, juice boxes and a cookie. Toothbrushes and tooth paste have also been included. 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.

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