For many elementary-aged children in Iowa, one of their first public tastes of inequity comes while staring down at the muddy blacktop while their wealthier classmates play in the snow.

I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s in western Iowa. Children who didn’t have snow pants or snow boots were confined to a paved area on the playground. Children who had the required gear could play wherever they wanted, building snowmen and snow forts. This type of cooperative play builds both brain cells and leadership skills.

The kids on the blacktop watched the kids in the snow. They didn’t get much exercise on those days. They didn’t get the same opportunities to learn gross motor skills or to enjoy the sensory experience of snow and ice. Or the joy.

I assumed things had changed since my own elementary playground days. After all, school lunches – while still a mess in many respects – are free in many places now, avoiding the specter of kids starving because their families haven’t sent lunch money. The snow-gear policy seemed absolutely archaic – another rule that punishes children for something they can’t change.

My second-grader came home from school in late November and told me about a child in her classroom who did not have snow pants or snow boots. The child stayed on the pavement while everyone else enjoyed the first big snow day in Iowa.

I felt a panic rising in my chest that I hadn’t experienced in more than 30 years.

I checked the Target and Walmart apps on my phone. All of the children’s snow gear was seemingly sold out in Central Iowa. We piled into our Subaru and drove to Scheels in West Des Moines at 7:30 p.m. on a Monday. I couldn’t fix this for every kid in Iowa. But I could fix it for one family. I dropped a bag off at the classmate’s doorstep around 8:30 p.m.

I do not blame teachers. They can’t be taking care of kids soaked wet by snow, kids who likely don’t have extra sets of clothes stashed in their lockers. I do not blame the Iowa schools – some, like Saydel, are struggling so much that they’re considering switching to a four-day week. I do not blame the parents. If they could afford snow gear (not just the items, but the time spent tracking them down) and spare their children both the shame and the cold, they would.

Iowa leaders frequently fret about an obesity epidemic but they don’t always see how something as simple as a pair of snow pants can contribute to it. The barriers to exercise and enjoying the outdoors start when Iowans are so very young.

Some companies have stepped up to help with winter gear. Athene USA has provided thousands of coats and pairs of snow boots to students at Des Moines Public Schools, according to the district. Athene’s Coats & Boots program started in the aftermath of the Flood of 1993. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the program continued – Athene safely provided new coats and boots for nearly 1,500 students at four high-poverty DMPS elementary schools.

Many public schools continue to struggle to meet the increasing needs of Iowa families. November 2023 was the busiest month in the history of the Des Moines Area Religious Council’s food pantry network, surpassing the previous record high set in August by 22%, the agency announced last week. The need is great.

This year, during the holidays or anytime, buy a pair or two of children’s snow pants or snow boots and donate them to an Iowa school nurse.

School nurses always know which kids are on the blacktop.