LE MARS, Iowa -- Kids who might not get all they need to eat on weekends will now go home from school every Friday afternoon with extra nutritional snacks to help tide them over.

Thanks to a new "backpack" program, similar to one in six Sioux City schools, students in transitional kindergarten through sixth grade at Clark Elementary School and Gehlen Catholic School will get seven to 10 healthful snacks each Friday to supplement their meals on Saturdays and Sundays.

The food will be distributed discreetly to those whose parents have signed up for it after their child was recommended by a teacher or staff member. Most the recipients are in the free or reduced-price lunch program. Teachers have also been asked to advise whether the student has a preschool age sibling at home who may need a little extra food, too. If the parents ask, no one questions it, said Brenda Nohava, founder of the Le Mars program.

For now, the program will serve 130 children, 80 at Clark and 50 at Gehlen. After it's established as a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation, it will be expanded to at least one other school, Nohava said.

`We needed food'

"You wouldn't think, in the Ice Cream Capital of the World, we would have hungry kids," Lisa Niebuhr, development director for Gehlen, said. "I can't tell you how many times we've heard of workers getting furloughed or downsized. The stress impacts the entire family."

Niebuhr said studies show kids who get sacks of food have fewer school absences than before the program.

And Clark Elementary principal Dave Horken said, "If a child comes to school hungry, they're going to be distracted, not able to focus," something the new program will help with. He said the number of students in the free and reduced-price lunch program at Clark has risen, an indication of the need for food beyond more families' means.

Niebuhr said she expects the backpack program to grow, too.

It was Niebuhr who applied for and received the first financing for the program, winning an $8,000 grant. Now, through gifts, it has more than $20,000 on hand. Nohava said that includes $1,000 from Tyson Fresh Meats and numerous individual donations. One card club gave $180 in December instead of members exchanging Christmas gifts.

"We'll take it. Thank you, thank you, thank you," Nohava said.

"When I started this, I just knew we needed food," Nohava said. "I didn't even know what a 501(c)3 (nonprofit corporation) was." That was more than a year ago. Now, the paperwork is in process while the program operates under the auspices of the Food Bank of Siouxland, which supplies the food for only a handling fee. Nohava said the Fareway grocery in Le Mars also has agreed to help with discounted products.

The program has also created a new weekly ritual in Le Mars. Members of one of the city's three T.T.T. philanthropic clubs showed up at the Nohava Construction warehouse Monday to pack the first bags and load them into blue bins for delivery to the schools Thursday for today's distribution. The dozen or so women made short work of it, packing the first 130 backpack sacks in about 20 minutes Monday night.

DY T.T.T. member Lorene Rexwinkel said the 35-member club will rotate with others to do packing. "We can be here on one week's notice," she said.

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