Alta fighting childhood hunger 1 backpack at a time

Thursday, January 11, 2018
Sherie Van Berkum shows school board members what goes into a backpack for students in need. (Photo by Dana Larsen)

ALTA — Headed into each weekend, over 50 Alta elementary students travel home with a little something extra on their backs. At this week’s Alta-Aurelia school board meeting, at-risk staff member Sherie Van Berkum gave the board a unique illustration of the groundbreaking backpack program at the school.

On the table in front of them, she unpacked a bag, can by can, juice box by juice box. Participating students’ packs are packed in their lockers while the students are in class, to protect their privacy. They receive enough food for three meals a day for two days plus nutritious snacks.

Not only has the program received “awesome” support from administrators and teachers, but high school students have provided much of the volunteer muscle to make it work.

“Never once have I had to go to students to ask them to pack a bag,” Van Berkum said. Often there are more volunteers than needed. They also leave study halls and other programs to unload trucks from the Food Bank.

“To have high school kids step away from their own lunch to help out is something,” High School Principal Tom Ryherd agreed. “And they do it joyfully.”

During the recent J-term at the school, a group signed up for a community service class took on the task. Buena Vista University students have also volunteered.

In addition to supplies provided by the Food Bank of Iowa, which now works statewide to provide food for about 6,000 children in schools that have started backpack programs, the local school spends about $5 per bag, for a cost of $10,000 a year.

A good portion of the funding comes in the form of donations. The school works to be frugal with funds being shared, Van Berkum said.

“Over time the community has become aware of the need. It’s amazing to see how they have responded.”

After the Food Bank was no longer able to provide boxes of food to families, the district also stepped in with a little help. For three-day weekends and holidays, staff hand-delivers boxes of food to families of school children in Alta and Aurelia who are in need and may be stressed to try to provide extra meals for children who are out of school.

“It’s another way to build relationships with families,” Van Berkum said. “For the students, they know the school is here to help them.”

In another program, the district quietly provides partial scholarships for families that cannot afford fees for extra curricular activities. As a result, some families that have been hard to reach have come around to trust.

One mother recently showed up for parent-teacher conferences at the high school who district officials believe had never attended in all the years her child had grown up in the district.

The backpack program begins with teachers, who identify students who they suspect are in potential hunger situations. They email the information to the at-risk coordinator, and parents are contacted.

“Some say no, and I respect that too,” Van Berkum said.

The district has served as many as 55 students with backpack aid recently, but better times have allowed a few to opt out.

“One family contacted us to say, ‘Hey, we’re doing OK now. Make sure you give this to someone else who needs it,’” Van Berkum said.

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