It can be hard to believe that hunger is a problem in Iowa, a leader in feeding the world. But for many in the state, food insecurity is a daily problem.

The Food Bank of Iowa has run the Backpack Program for many years, sending food home in backpacks with children in the lower grades for the weekend. “But hunger doesn’t end when a child gets into seventh or eighth grade or in high school,” says Kate Pauly, child and youth program coordinator for the Food Bank of Iowa.

That’s why the school pantry program was set up in the fall of 2014. Schools in areas of need come on board, donating space in their facility — an unused closet, an old classroom — and the Food Bank of Iowa purchases a refrigerator/freezer for the site. Sometimes, shop classes in the school make the shelves, or they are donated by a community member.

The idea is simple: Since the school is so often the hub of the community, why not make it a place that families in need can pick up what they need to stretch their resources?

“The school is usually seen as a safe choice,” Pauly says. “Their kids are already here, it’s easy to get to, and we have convenient hours right after the school day. Because of the close relationship between students and faculty, school personnel frequently become aware of challenges within the family while dealing with student issues.”

Currently, 21 school pantries are operating around the state, with 30 expected by the end of 2016.

Winterset Middle School was one of the original nine schools. Brittany Salton, the school nurse, says an old tutoring room was converted for use as a pantry. The school pantry is now open the second and fourth Thursdays of the month from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., coordinating with a local church’s pantry open on the third Thursday.

During an average month, Salton says the Winterset School Pantry serves about 100 people or 32 families. “Some of these are individuals who have hit a rough patch,” she says. “Others have had something like a house fire. Many are multi-generation households where the adults are working but not making enough to feed their families, even with programs like WIC (Women, Infants and Children).”

Customers of the school pantry can pick up whatever they need to get them through the next week or two. Having refrigeration on-site means families also have access to meat, milk and frozen foods. The Winterset pantry orders food from the Food Bank of Iowa, but also occasionally holds drives of its own to get items that are not often donated, like personal hygiene items.

In addition, the Winterset location has partnered with a local Kiwanis Club to provide “birthday bags,” a bag filled with all the decorations for a party, a cake pan and a gift book. “A lot of these families just don’t have the extra money to spend on birthday parties,” Salton says.

Food Bank of Iowa’s Pauly says she uses statistics from the national Feeding America  Network on poverty levels in each of Iowa’s counties. “We’ve targeted the counties that are getting less poundage (of food) from us,” she says, adding that the Food Bank of Iowa covers 55 of Iowa’s 99 counties. “Sometimes, the school districts come to us. However it happens, we’re seeking out people who are underserved.”

For more information on the School Pantry program, go to or call Kate Pauly at 515-564-0330.

Van Kooten is a freelance writer from Pella.