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Ankeny Backpack Buddies Aims to Curb Child Hunger

Thursday marked the kickoff of Ankeny Backpack Buddies, a supplementary food program launched by several local groups and volunteers. The program is designed to provide extra food for kids to take home over the weekend.

After a year of planning and hard work, a group of Ankeny kids will have a little more to eat this weekend when they head home from school.

A group of volunteers from the , Ankeny Leadership Institute and gathered at East Elementary School Thursday to participate in the first sorting and packaging of food bags for Ankeny Backpack Buddies. The bags will be sent home today with about 50 students.

“This is such a big deal to us,” said Julianne Taylor, principal of East Elementary School. “Even in Ankeny, we have students at risk. This truly is an incredible thing.”

The supplementary food program is designed to help Ankeny students who battle hunger when they’re not at school.

Ankeny Students Among Those in Need

Although Backpack Buddies is new to Ankeny, it is administered in other parts of the state. The program is run by the Food Bank of Iowa and is a program of Feeding America, a national organization dedicated to eradicating hunger.

 said she first heard of Backpack Buddies through her role in the Ankeny Kiwanis Club, as the Des Moines Kiwanis clubs have supported similar programs at the Des Moines Boys and Girls Club and in Des Moines elementary schools.

As participants in last year’s Ankeny Leadership Institute, Walter-Ashby and several others decided to look into starting a Backpack Buddies program in Ankeny.

“During our (leadership institute) sessions, we learned 12 percent of school district students are eligible for free and reduced meals, and some schools are at 22 to 25 percent,” Walter-Ashby said in an email to Ankeny Patch.

Walter-Ashby said the group's members suspected many of those students could be experiencing chronic hunger.

“There are seven meals between Friday after school and Monday morning, so you realize kids could be going hungry on the weekends,” Walter-Ashby said. 

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Ankeny Leadership Institute members later met with Associate Superintendent of Schools Bruce Kimpston and were able to secure the partnership of Ankeny’s Project Fresh Start, as well as the Food Bank of Iowa.

Following their meeting with Kimpston, leadership institute members learned two women from Ankeny First United Methodist Church met with Kimpston a few days later to pitch the same idea, Walter-Ashby said.

“Dr. Kimpston said later he knew it was an idea whose time had come since two separate groups pitched the same idea within days of each other,” Walter-Ashby said.

The two church women, Traci Schermerhorn and Kate Pauly, had returned from a retreat in Kansas City, where a church served its own weekend meals to local kids. Schermerhorn and Pauly presented the idea of starting a local program to other members of the church. 

When they learned they were working on the same idea, volunteers from the church partnered with the leadership participants to make the idea a reality.

Leadership institute member Nancy Lehman, who also is coordinator of special programs for the Ankeny school district, worked with Kimpston in determining which school would be best to pilot the new program. They ultimately decided to launch Backpack Buddies at East Elementary because the school is smaller and has a high percentage of students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

Starting Out at East Elementary

A team of volunteers with Ankeny Methodist Church will pick up food at the Food Bank of Iowa once per month and bring it to East, where it will be stored. Volunteers will then meet twice each month to sort and pack the food into grocery bags.

Each bag will contain about 13 food items including pudding, peanut butter, cereal, juice and other items, Walter-Ashby said.

“The items should provide a child with enough nutrition to get through the weekend if, heaven forbid, it’s the only food at hand,” Walter-Ashby said.

Confidentiality is key when it comes to distributing the bags of food. School staff members will place a bag of food in each child’s backpack during the school day at a time when the child is not in his or her homeroom.

Good Food Means Better Learning

Proper nutrition goes hand-in-hand with learning, Taylor said.

“When a child is hungry, it gets in the way of learning,” she said. “If those pieces are in place and kids feel safe and connected, their learning will improve.

Walter-Ashby said once they know if the program will run smoothly, volunteers hope to expand to additional eligible students at East, as well as other schools in Ankeny.

In addition to the program’s funding through the Food Bank, Backpack Buddies also received donations from businesses and organizations, including and The Variety Club. Members of Ankeny Methodist Church and the leadership institute plan to continue fundraising, Walter-Ashby said, eventually involving school parent-teacher organizations.

How You Can Help

Taylor encouraged those who wish to donate to the program to do so via the Food Bank of Iowa. Other donations can be sent to Ankeny Backpack Buddies, P.O. Box 411, Ankeny, IA  50021.

“For us to do this on our own would have been challenging, but this truly is a partnership,” Taylor said.

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