MLK Day of serving food-insecure kids

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  • The Service and Leadership Council, the Northeast Food Bank, the Volunteer Center of Cedar Valley and Americorps are partnering to organize the fourth MLK Day of Service benefitting the BackPack Program.

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The giving season didn’t end on Christmas, according to some volunteer organizers.

On Monday, Jan. 21, students, faculty and community members will come together for the fourth annual MLK Day of Service in Maucker Union.

While the day of service has previously centered around packing Meals from the Heartland, this year’s participants will spend the day volunteering for the BackPack Program benefiting food insecure students of all ages in the Cedar Valley area.

The event is organized by the Service and Leadership Council (SLC), the Northeast Iowa Food Bank, the Volunteer Center of Cedar Valley and AmeriCorps.

“How the BackPack Program works is teachers identify students that [. . .] have food deprivation problems,” said Sarah Madsen, a sophomore deciding major and the executive of SLC’s Days of Service Committee. “So it’s really the teachers that identify the students and from there, we’ll give the teachers the meals that are packaged, and they’ll sneak it into the kids’ backpack [. . .] They’ll do it in some discreet way and then the kid will be able to take it.”

SLC President Morgan Johnston likes the discreteness of the BackPack Program.

“A big thing in schools is equality, and when a student is like the black sheep of the group, then they’re often picked on and they don’t feel safe in the environment,” said Johnston, a senior elementary education major. “So this is just another way for them to be safe in the environment, but also get the [resources] that they need in order to focus on their learning.”

The Northeast Iowa Food Bank will provide all the non-perishable food items for Monday’s project.

Madsen likes that the BackPack Program specifically benefits children because she thinks they are an overlooked group when it comes to food insecurity. And that’s just one thing about food insecurity that many Iowans don’t know. Volunteers will be tested on other facts about the Northeast Iowa Food Bank via trivia questions throughout the event.

“I hope that [the volunteers] learn a little bit more about Iowa poverty,” Johnston said. “It’s not something that’s very profound in Iowa — people don’t know about it as much. If you go to Chicago or Detroit, people see it a lot, but here in Iowa, we don’t think that. But it happens more often than we think, so just bringing awareness to that poverty level [is important].”

There are 675 spots for volunteers spread across three 90-minute sessions, starting at 9 a.m. Volunteers must sign up in advance on’s “Volunteers” page. No volunteer experience is required to participate, but attendees must be at least 12 years old.

According to Madsen, volunteers packed around 13,000 meals last year. She hopes to surpass that number this year and thinks that packing 20,000 meals would be a great achievement.

Both Johnston and Madsen hope that volunteers remember the selflessness and service that Martin Luther King, Jr. exemplified in his lifetime.

“Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was obviously a big server,” Johnston said. “He didn’t do it exactly by packaging food, but he was always big on poverty and segregation. So this is just another way of serving what his viewpoints were at the time through something different. But also giving back to those he was most passionate about — those who were in lower poverty. So that’s just basically how we are celebrating him still and also making it more of a day on than a day off because people often forget why we have it. They just think it’s another day off […] We’re trying to bring it back to more where we bring awareness for what he did.”

“It’s nice that MLK Day falls right after Christmas, so it’s kind of still in the giving season,” Madsen said. “It’s important because MLK […] did so much in his life. A lot of people just know him for the civil rights [activism] that he did. But he did a lot of service. He worked a lot with people in his community.”