116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
MOUNT VERNON — Mount Vernon and Lisbon students are more prepared to start the school year next month after a supply drive has provided 141 kids with the items they need from their classroom-provided school supply lists.
Kids who were signed up for the school supply drive received a free backpack plus all the items listed to start the 2021-22 school year. Families and community members on Wednesday also got their choice of food items they needed at a pop-up food pantry.
The school supply drive and pop-up pantry were held at Mount Vernon Middle School by Food For Thought, a community group formed to address food insecurity in Mount Vernon and Lisbon. It was created at the end of January 2019 when severe cold weather forced many Eastern Iowa schools to close for up to a week.
“We became concerned kids were not getting regular lunch and breakfast,” Mount Vernon Superintendent Greg Batenhorst said. Community members put together a food pantry within 24 hours for the “great need” at the time, he said.
Since then, Food For Thought has organized about seven pop-up food pantries. Wednesday’s was the first of 2021.
Batenhorst said there wasn’t a huge need earlier for a food pantry to benefit school children since free breakfast and lunch has been available to kids since the pandemic began in Iowa in March 2020 through the federal Summer Food Service Program.
When the pandemic started, the Mount Vernon district food service staff served lunch at Davis Park in Mount Vernon in good and bad weather from March to the end of May 2020.
After over a year of serving free breakfast and lunch during the summer and throughout the 2020-21 school year, Mount Vernon ended summer lunches June 30.
“I needed to give my food service staff some time off,” Batenhorst said.
Batenhorst noted many families now are receiving Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) benefits to help them put food on the table.
“We’re listening to our community to know what they need, when they need it,” he said.
Nicole McAlexander, executive director at Southeast Linn Community Center, has seen the benefits of partnering with Food For Thought in the community. The Southeast Linn Community Center serves children, seniors and low-income individuals in Mount Vernon and Lisbon.
“We’ve been fighting hunger in the community for 35 years,” she said. “Food For Thought raised awareness of food insecurity and got new volunteers involved in the organization.”
Over 40 new households have connected with the community center through Food For Thought, McAlexander said.
“It helped us connect with people who qualify for our pantry but weren’t using it,” she said.
The school supply drive was organized by the Southeast Linn Community Center. McAlexander said the cost of school supplies is funded from the center’s budget and donations from community members and churches.
Some kids are “definitely not ready” in July to start thinking about going back to school, McAlexander said.
“The younger ones get excited and there’s joy on their faces,” she said. “It’s never easy for families to have to ask for help for things like this.”
Kate Rose, a volunteer and co-founder of Food For Thought, said there is always an “impressive” amount of food donated for Food For Thought pop-up pantries.
People are able to “shop” for what they need from tables filled with items like peanut butter, spaghetti and sauce, meat and other food items. Each pop-up pantry serves an average of 50 households.
“The need increased exponentially during the pandemic,” Rose said. “People lost their jobs, children were home more and not in school. There’s a need, and it’s one of the things many of us have had the opportunity to realize as a result of the pandemic.
“Children shouldn’t start their day hungry,” she continued. “How can you possibly be hungry and concentrate on a lesson when all you’re thinking about is ‘Wouldn’t breakfast be great?’”
There is not a date set yet for the next Food For Thought pop-up pantry. But it will be advertised through the school districts, Southeast Linn Community Center and flyers placed around town, McAlexander said.
The pop-up pantries are open to anyone facing food insecurity in Mount Vernon and Lisbon.
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