ACSD BackPack Program gets help from students in helping other students in need

Students assist with BackPack Program in ACSD ... Students in Gail Hilleshiem's classes at Waukon High School and Middle School have been sharpening their resumés with volunteer efforts through the BackPack Program offering meal assistance to students in need within the school district. Pictured above, students work at packing meals for the program, and pictured below, students also help deliver the meals to student recipients. Submitted photos.

by Brianne Eilers

It can be hard to imagine that hunger is an issue for families in America. However, life's twists and turns put many families in a situation where it can be a struggle to put food on the table.

One in five children in America faces hunger, and when children don't get proper nutrition, it can affect a number of things, such as concentration. Imagine having to go a whole weekend without having much to eat and then trying to focus on school lessons the following Monday morning.

The Allamakee Community School District (ACSD) has been involved in a program that has been trying to address those hunger issues for local students who may need such assistance. For almost 10 years now the ACSD has been partnering with the Northeast Iowa Food Bank to provide the BackPack

Program to help students make sure they have something to eat when school meals aren't available.

The BackPack Program began in 2004 with 100 backpacks being distributed in the Waterloo School District. Over the years, the program has grown to provide almost 128,000 bags of food to children at 141 school districts in 16 counties.

Gail Hilleshiem, a special education and Level 2 teacher at Waukon High School and Waukon Middle School, is also the BackPack Site Coordinator for ACSD. Hilleshiem explained that the program is a grant-funded program. Students receive their bags of food Fridays at the end of the school day, and each bag is packed with two meals of breakfast items and two meals of lunch items for students to eat over the weekend. Items could include fruit snacks, juice boxes, pop-top meals, and granola bars, among other things.

Hilleshiem stresses that any student in the school district who qualifies for the free and reduced lunch program is eligible to participate in the BackPack Program. There is no additional criteria to meet. "The program is for students 18 years old and younger," said Hilleshiem, adding that siblings at home who are not yet old enough for school can also be included in the program. Parents or guardians can apply for the free and reduced lunch program and the BackPack Program at any time during the school year, as it is obvious that unforeseen circumstances can cause hardships at any time.

Beginning this year, staff from the school can also refer students to the program, should they see a student that they think could benefit from the BackPack Program. Families are encouraged to apply for assistance if they need it. More eligible applicants helps the district be able to renew the grant that is funding the program, and also aids the school district in applying for other grants.

The food is delivered to the school district from the Northeast Iowa Food Bank. Hilleshiem's Level 2 students pack the food bags and deliver them to recipient pick-up locations Fridays. "It's a volunteer opportunity for the students," she said. "Volunteer work is becoming so important for students to have on college applications and resumés."

Last year, during the Christmas season, the recently-popular Elf on the Shelf even made an appearance during food deliveries. In past years, the students have packed anywhere from 125 to 150 bags a week. Currently, they are averaging about 111 food bags.

Hilleshiem noted that the program also receives cash donations from local entities, such as churches or other organizations, that can be used to purchase food items. During the year, the program also receives coupons for food items, such as pork coupons from Reick's Family Pork and the Iowa Pork Association, that are included in the bags as well. Many larger corporations also work with the NEIA Foodbank for contributions, such as John Deere and Quaker Cereals. The Dental Association also donates toothbrushes and toothpaste annually. "All monetary donations will stay local to assist our students at risk," Hilleshiem explained.

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