It’s been a long time since I’ve sent kids back to school, but I still look forward to fall and recall the excitement. New teachers. New notebooks. New school clothes for kids who have grown and worn through blue jean knees.

Yet with that anticipation comes concern for 36% of Iowans who don’t make enough to cover their basic needs. They wonder daily how to afford groceries and put gas in the car to get to work, let alone how to stretch the budget for school registration and required supplies.

Back-to-school expenses ‘staggering’

The National Retail Federation reports families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average of $890 per household on back-to-school items this year, a record high. It’s a staggering amount for those struggling to make ends meet, including the 65,000 households Food Bank of Iowa serves every month.

One budget gap schools help to fill is the most basic human need: to eat. We know that kids who are well-fed develop better, behave better and learn better in school. A return to school means students struggling with hunger can once again access the nutrition they need to thrive.

Free and reduced-price school meals are a critical part of the solution in Iowa, where more than 42% of students are eligible. In a majority of Des Moines Public Schools, more than 75 percent of students qualify for meals funded by the federal government, allowing these schools to provide free meals to every enrolled student through USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision.

But it’s not enough.

When I visit communities around the state, many are familiar with Food Bank of Iowa’s BackPack Program™, which provides weekend food for 4,100 elementary children at 103 schools every Friday. The bags contain shelf-stable milk, cereal, juice, canned fruit and meals, and snacks. This supplemental food is also part of the solution.

But it’s still not enough.

School pantries provide food assistance in a familiar environment

When an elementary child is hungry at school, there are almost always siblings and guardians at home who need help with food. So, we set a goal at Food Bank of Iowa to establish a pantry in all 168 school districts in our 55-county region. For DMPS, we are working toward a pantry in every school. Thanks to steadfast donors, we are making tremendous progress. Food Bank of Iowa supports 148 school pantries in 43 counties; 45 of our school pantries are within DMPS.

School pantries are set up much like our community pantries but are easily accessible at school. Students and their families can visit as often as needed. Food Bank of Iowa provides shelving, fridges, freezers, food safety training, monitoring and food free of charge to school pantries. And we deliver the food for free, too. Schools provide space and staff.

I greatly admire the heroes who run school pantries on top of their full-time jobs. Counselors, homeless liaisons, teachers and school nurses go above and beyond for their kids. And supportive administrators find space and say “yes” to a pantry. I’m inspired by the unique and ingenious ways they serve their community and involve others – student athletes who help unload pallets of food. Honor students who stock shelves and take inventory. Parents who provide clothing and personal hygiene supplies.

Last year, Food Bank of Iowa distributed 2 million pounds of food to neighbors facing food insecurity through school pantries – serving 51,694 households and 184,755 individuals. This year, with record need, we are stepping up to do even more.

But it is still not enough. And it won’t be until no child or parent must worry about where to find their next meal.

You can help

Find out whether your school has a pantry and donate or volunteer. If not, encourage your school administrator to launch a pantry with Food Bank of Iowa. Most importantly, reach out to educate your lawmakers about food insecurity and advocate for support of school feeding programs and SNAP via the Farm Bill. It impacts access to nutritious food for millions of people facing hunger.

Kids are the future of Iowa. Won’t you join me in investing in our future?

Michelle Book is president and CEO of Food Bank of Iowa, providing food for children, families, seniors and veterans in 55 Iowa counties. Learn more at