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Hundreds Gather In The UNI-Dome To Package Meals For Needy Kids

Pat Blank
Boxes filled with food packages assembled by volunteers Monday are ready to be loaded onto a semi and hauled to the Northeast Iowa Foodbank warehouse.

As part of the many service events being held around the country Monday, a group of volunteers in Northeast Iowa is hoping to set a record for packaging food items to assist a local food bank.

More than 1500 people were expected to be on hand at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls to assemble bags of food items as part of the so-called BackPack Program.

Northeast Iowa Food Bank Executive Director Barb Prather explained the BackPack Program began in 2005 with just five schools and 100 kids.  It has grown exponentially. 

“The program last year served between four and five thousand kids with over 150,000 bags on the weekends because we started hearing from a lot of teachers, social workers and family support workers and school nurses that kids were coming to school on Monday morning and they could tell they hadn’t eaten on the weekend,” Prather said.

Prather said the food is distributed discreetly to registered students on Fridays and is enough to help fill the gap until they’re back in school on Monday.

Credit Pat Blank / IPR
This is what a "Back Pack" meal from the Northeast Iowa Food Bank looks like.

“We usually do a couple entrées that the kids can prepare themselves, anything form Easy Mac to pop top meals. There’s some sort of a fruit cup or a squeezy fruit item. There’s juice. There’s snack items and cereal. We try to keep the weight down because the bag does go in their backpacks to go home, and we know kids are little. And they’ve got enough books and enough other things to carry,” said Prather.

Making sure there are enough bags to go around is what today’s event is all about, the goal is to assemble 48,000 units.  Lauren Finke is the Executive Director of the Volunteer Center of the Cedar Valley.  Her office has helped in the past at another location on the UNI campus, but to be able fill this order they had to go big.

“We can actually drive trucks into the UNI-Dome," Finke said. "When we were in Maucker Union, there wasn’t room for that so we were using just small tools and things to cart around, so having the ability to have people in line, large groups of them, packing the food, getting them loaded onto the forklifts getting them loaded onto the semis all in one space is eye opening for all of us to know that it is just that simple.”

Finke said organizers initially asked for 1200 volunteers which seemed like a lot but more than 1500 people have signed up. She said with that many bodies in motion sometimes supervisors have to actually slow the assembly process

“And that’s why we have really upped the ante on the number of backpacks that we’re packing, the number of people that are going to be there.  Their excitement level will just increase our capacity that much more,” said Finke.

Credit Pat Blank / IPR
More than 1500 people signed up to help assemble meals for the food bank's BackPack Program.

Among those helping do the packing with be a contingent of students, staff and faculty from UNI’s Office of Community Engagement. Director Julianne Gassman said she thinks the overall experience will be measured by much more than just how many thousand units are processed 

“We will learn about food insecurity and hunger in this community. We will build community with each other. We have lines where people will be standing next to each other for a while, so we will talk to one another and get to know one another in ways that we can’t when we just move about our life the way we do in sort of a regular week,” said Gassman. 

Along with the volunteers, a number of corporate sponsors and service organizations are making today’s event possible.  The Food Bank’s Barb Prather said the 48,000 bags assembled Monday will last a little more than two months.