OWATONNA — In conjunction with the Owatonna High School football team’s state tournament run, the student council is hosting a month-long food drive aimed at “sacking hunger” within the district and the Steele County community.

The Huskies are one of over 50 state tournament schools invited to participate in the initiative, which is run through a partnership between the Minnesota State High School League and food-relief organization Second Harvest.

After finding out that their team had made the playoffs last Friday, Director of Activities Marc Achterkirch got a call from the league with details about this year’s Sack Hunger campaign. He passed it on to the student council and the event kicked off with a bang at yesterday’s pep rally.

At the all-school gathering, student council president Camryn Bartz shared details about how to donate and then asked if anyone in the crowd had anything that they could contribute to officially launch the drive.

Responding to the call, audience members came forward with canned goods, boxed dinners, condiments and hygiene products — placing them in a makeshift “end zone” taped off along one side of the gym.

“Some student council members had already donated stuff, so we had them sit in the stands with their donations,” Bartz explained. “[We wanted] to give a visual to all the students of filling the end zone so that they’ll think, ‘Oh I can help fill the end zone, because other teachers and students already have.’”

Sandra Justice, orchestra director and student council adviser, had sent an email out to staff encouraging her colleagues to bring items in as well. She noted that it’s a way to involve the whole school in the state championship and to give everyone a healthy dose of competition.

“It’s kind of fun because we are competing against the other high schools that are involved in the state tournament,” she said. “You’re able to compete both on the field and off the field, which gives your student body and community the chance to have that competition as well.”

If Owatonna High School gathers the largest number of donations, students will be recognized at halftime of the championship game — even if the team itself doesn’t make it that far.

Although the drive was organized in part by Second Harvest, Justice explained that the national organization gave each participant the option of distributing its proceeds through more local channels.

“Our intention is to keep it local and give it to our food shelf,” she noted. Justice explained that proceeds will be split between the Steele County Food Shelf and the in-school Husky Pantry, where social worker Nancy Williams packs backpacks full of food for students to take home over the weekend.

“The food comes through Trinity Lutheran Church, they donate food to me every two weeks,” Williams explained. “Usually on Thursdays and Fridays at the end of the day, I fill backpacks and send food home with kids.”

Williams said she has around 20 families that she’s working with right now and that she always gets permission from parents or guardians before bringing in a new student.

“We serve families that are either struggling with food on the weekends because of poverty, or they meet our criteria for homelessness,” she explained. “[Situations include] if you’re doubled up with other families because of a financial situation, if you’re living in a hotel while awaiting permanent housing, if you’re sleeping at different friends’ houses while you’re on your own.”

With the holidays coming up, Williams noted that it’s an especially busy time for the pantry.

“We do get it restocked every other week, and it’s completely gone by the time I’m restocking it,” she said. “There definitely is a need all the time, and especially those times where we have longer breaks from school.”

While families can rely on their children getting two nutritious meals a day in school, over breaks that resource isn’t necessarily there. “Even for Thanksgiving, that’s three days and you might have to feed multiple children,” said Williams. “We’re giving more food items out at those times, so our pantry gets depleted quicker.”

Williams said she’s already been in touch with Justice and the student council, figuring out the logistics of this new drive. For Bartz’ part, she’s excited to see how Owatonna will stack up against other state tournament high schools off the field.

“I’m really excited to see how much we can raise and what our school and community can do to help this,” she said, “and to see how other schools compete with us.”

She added that she hopes to see a wide variety of food – maybe even some Thanksgiving specialties – as well as personal care products. Fellow student council member Kiara Gentz seconded Bartz, saying, “My church was talking about how when people donate to the food shelf, it’s usually the same kind of items.”

Justice also pointed out that, while this particular initiative only lasts a few weeks, the school and the Steele County Food Shelf are always taking donations.

“We have a definite need right here at our high school and in our community,” added Williams.

Students, staff and community members have from now through Tuesday, Nov. 26, to bring nonperishable food items and hygiene products to the high school office as part of the Sack Hunger campaign. As of today, Lincoln Elementary is also accepting donations in partnership with the drive, and Justice said she hopes to get other district schools involved as well.

For more information, residents can contact the school’s front office at 507-444-8800.

Reporter Bridget Kranz can be reached at 507-444-2376. Follow her on Twitter @OPPBridget. ©Copyright 2019 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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