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Jackson Elementary School students package more than 20,000 meals to feed the hungry

Deb Fink (left) holds a plastic bag as Jackson Elementary School kindergartner Helena Namweru (center) pours in a measure of textured soy protein while Jeff Jackson (right) looks on as they and other students and volunteers package meals during the annual Take Away Hunger event at Jackson Elementary School in northwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Tuesday, May 28, 2019. This is the fifth year that students, staff and volunteers at the school have packaged meals that will be distributed to less fortunate people. This year, the students in grades k-5expect to package 21,000 meals. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Deb Fink (left) holds a plastic bag as Jackson Elementary School kindergartner Helena Namweru (center) pours in a measure of textured soy protein while Jeff Jackson (right) looks on as they and other students and volunteers package meals during the annual Take Away Hunger event at Jackson Elementary School in northwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Tuesday, May 28, 2019. This is the fifth year that students, staff and volunteers at the school have packaged meals that will be distributed to less fortunate people. This year, the students in grades k-5expect to package 21,000 meals. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Students at Jackson Elementary School spent some time lending a helping hand last Tuesday as they packaged thousands of meals to support food-insecure families.

This is the school’s fifth year packaging nutrient-rich rice and soy-based casserole mixes for Take Away Hunger, a local food-relief organization that relies on teams of volunteers to package the meals for delivery locally and overseas.

Principal Nicholas Duffy said over the past five years, Jackson Elementary School students have packaged roughly 125,000 meals. The school’s involvement, he said, began with retired second-grade teacher Connie Stusak, who coordinates the program each year.

“I’m basically the Take Away Hunger cheerleader,” she said. “I go into the classrooms about six weeks before packaging day and talk to the kids about hunger, what it means to be hungry and how they can help, and I give them little incentives or rewards to get them excited and want to get involved.”

During those six weeks, Stusak said the students bring in quarters that will be used to pay for the meals’ ingredients. This year the students collected $5,400 in quarters, which bought enough ingredients to package 21,000 meals.

Stusak said she became involved with Take Away Hunger when she was still a teacher at Jackson Elementary School. Together, she and her second-grade classes would put on fundraising projects like bake sales in order to purchase and package meals.

“We did that for about six or eight years,” she said. “And then when I retired five years ago, I thought to myself, ‘I bet I can take on the whole school now.”

And that’s exactly what she did.

On Tuesday, roughly 335 of the school’s 376 students — pre-K classes did not participate — worked in assembly-line fashion to package tens of thousands of meals in about six hours.

The meals consist of a specialized mixture of rice, soy protein, black beans and spices that is 52 percent protein and fortified with vitamins and minerals.

Since January 2018, Take Away Hunger co-founder Don Fields said the organization has supplied 700,000 meals to flood victims in Texas, 500,000 meals to tornado and flood victims in Kansas, 265,000 meals to hurricane victims in North Carolina and South Carolina and 250,000 meals to hurricane victims in Florida and Georgia. The organization also ships meals overseas. The first year the whole school participated, Stusak said the meals they packaged went to Nepal to aid victims of a massive earthquake that devastated the Kathmandu area.

“We provide roughly 2 to 3 million meals per year and we’ve been doing this for 18 years,” Fields said.

Fields and his wife Sandee founded the Mount Pleasant-based organization after they learned about a similar program in Minnesota called Children Against Hunger. Since then, the organization has continued to grow in volunteers, as well as the number of meals it provides.

Statistics from the United State Department of Agriculture show that one in eight — or 40 million — Americans were food-insecure in 2017. Of those, 12 million are children. In Iowa, data shows one in nine people are food-insecure and one in six children don’t have enough to eat.

“It’s shocking to think that there are so many families and children in the United States are suffering from hunger,” Stusak said. “And all it takes is people getting together and doing something like this — packaging meals — to make a difference for those people, and the students really get into to it. I think they learn a lot from doing this and they really enjoy it.”

That’s one of the reasons Stusak continues to organize the event each year.

“It’s a really worthwhile program to get involved with,” she said. “Every year I talk to the students about being grateful for the food they have to and all the good things they have in their lives. And I think doing something like this shows them that they can make a difference in other peoples’ lives by being kind and generous. And it only costs a quarter a meal for them to be able to offer that hope to people who are suffering from hunger.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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