After a year off, Back Packin' the Dome returns in full force

After a year off, Back Packin' the Dome returns in full force

Anna Flanders /

Volunteers in the UNI-DomeOn Martin Luther King Jr. Day, about 1,000 people from across the Cedar Valley used the federal holiday to serve food-insecure children in the community at the annual Back Packin’ the Dome event. 

Hundreds of volunteers, including UNI student-athletes, filled the UNI-Dome’s field in three 90-minute shifts, packing nearly 48,000 backpacks of nutritious food. This supports Feeding America’s local division of the BackPack Program which ensures Northeast Iowa children enrolled in 145 schools have plenty of nutritious food to eat on weekends and times they may not be able to rely on school meal programs.

“I always find this day so inspiring because I think it showcases the amount of time and effort people in the Cedar Valley are willing to give back to their community,” said Julianne Gassman, UNI’s director of community engagement. “I don’t think it happens only on this day, but on other days they're doing it, they're not doing it under one roof for one cause like this.”

Before volunteers began their assembly line of unloading boxes of food and packing bags, President Mark A. Nook welcomed attendees. “It’s fun to watch all the pieces come together and to watch our community respond,” Nook said to KWWL.

The annual day of service is a partnership between UNI, the Office of Community Engagement, Panther Pantry (UNI’s food bank for students) and AmeriCorps. All these organizations come together to support the work started by the Volunteer Center of Cedar Valley and the Northeast Iowa Food Bank.

While this event has been a staple at UNI for many years, this is only the second time the MLK Day of Service took place in the UNI-Dome. Previously, it had been held in the Maucker Union, but the event’s growing popularity required a larger venue so it moved to the Dome in 2020 for the first time. The event was not held last year due to the pandemic. 

Among the volunteers were a number of elected officials including U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst, Iowa Lt. Governor Adam Gregg, Cedar Falls Mayor Rob Green, State Senator Eric Giddens, State Senator Liz Mathis, State Representative Bob Kressig, State Representative Ras Smith, State Representative Dave Williams, and Cedar Falls City Council Members Kelly Dunn and Dustin Ganfield.

“[It’s] Martin Luther King Jr. Day and what [better] way to celebrate than a day of service,” Ernst told KWWL. “Coming out to the UNI-Dome and sharing some time with the volunteers and the organizations making sure that children throughout the year will have nutritious food to cover them over weekends, maybe in the evenings. It’s a great cause!”

Grassley was equally impressed with the turnout. “I’m really proud of the hundreds of people for coming here today to do this, and to do it on a holiday, when a lot of people might just be watching television,” he said to the Courier.

Volunteers young and old flooded the UNI-Dome, all driven by the common desire to help those in need. Community member Deborah Bunker and her husband made the event a family affair by bringing two of their children and three of their children’s friends. While the family frequently volunteers at the food bank, this is their first time participating in a Pack the Dome event.

“Isn't that what Dr. King’s life was about: trying to do good for those that were downtrodden and to help bring dignity to all walks of life?” said Bunker. “I think he would have been so proud of people doing this on his day in his honor.” 

Although the event was held before UNI started classes, plenty of students still showed up. First-year student Caleb Brothers and his girlfriend attended together. Brothers believes that giving back to the community on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day is especially important.

Along each table, AmeriCorps volunteers helped keep the event moving, not only with logistical guidance but also with their enthusiastic attitudes. One AmeriCorps member, Jalyn Burns, described the physical activity involved as part of the excitement of the event.

“This is what Dr. King always dreamed about,” said Burns. “He was always serving. He was always putting others above himself–and he did it until the day he died.”

Although the event took a year off in 2021, Northeast Iowa Food Bank’s executive director Barb Prather acknowledged in her opening remarks that the last two years have likely been the ones where families have been hit the hardest with food insecurity. However, she also mentioned that food insecurity has now returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Health precautions were in place at the event, including masks and hand sanitizer for all attendees.