Every student deserves to have regular meals. That’s what Christina Rutjens believes.
As the coordinator of Elkhorn Valley Schools’ chapter of Blessings in a Backpack, she makes sure teachers can discreetly put food in backpacks of students who might not otherwise have food over the weekend, including shelf-stable milk and six other kid-friendly food items.
This local chapter of a national organization started in September 2017, inspired by successful programs in Norfolk and other smaller communities.
“I talked to some teachers and administrators and asked if there was a need, ... so we got a program going,” she said.
Rutjens’ role as coordinator is to raise funds, order food and deliver it to the school, where it is passed on to students in preschool through 12th grade. To determine if a student qualifies for the program, the organization sends out letters to all students at the beginning of the year and maintains a confidential list. It served 16 students last year.
Food security is an issue people might not realize is so pervasive in smaller communities like Tilden, she said.
“I think in general, in rural communities, food insecurity is a big issue,” she said. “We don’t have resources larger cities may have like a food pantry. For kids to actually get somewhere to get help is not logistically or economically practical.”
The Norfolk Area United Way helps the organization carry out its mission by providing about a third of its funding this year. Rutjens is grateful for the boost it provides, which allows all students who apply for the program to be served.
“Nourishment is one of your basic needs and children don’t have any way to provide that for themselves,” she said. “Thank you to the United Way for helping support that.”
Rutjens said she knows Blessings in a Backpack makes a difference when a teacher takes time to thank her.
“Just having a teacher come up to me and tell me, ‘Thank you so much for doing this, this is helping my students so much.’ I’ve had that happen different times,” she said. “That way you know what you’re doing is really helping someone out.”