The Arkansas Foodbank drive-through distribution event, hosted by the Outlets of Little Rock on April 28, wasn’t to begin until 10 a.m.
But struggling families seeking food began lining up in their cars early. By 5:30 a.m.
Says Arkansas Foodbank CEO Rhonda Sanders, “I did not realize how massive it was until about 8:30, and I looked up, and I saw people out on the access road. And they had them park up and down every aisle in the parking lot, all around the mall, back around the mall — and they were still out on the access road.”
A mere 90 minutes into the planned four-hour event, everything was gone. All 840 family portions of frozen ham, pantry staples, apples and potatoes — gone.
Yet, hungry Arkansans remained. Sanders says, “There were still so many in line,” estimating about 2,000 people came out to receive food that morning, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.
“The ones who received a box were extremely grateful; they were just thankful for anything that they got,”
Sanders says. “There were some that were bitterly disappointed, and we sent them to pantries, and we tried to show them how they could access food through our website.
“The hardest one was a mother … she started crying. It kills you when you’re doing this. If I could have manufactured a box at that point in time, I would have done anything to give her that box of food.”
Sanders would have the chance the following week when the Foodbank and shopping center hosted another joint event, this time with enough food for 1,500 — plenty for all who attended.
Heeding the need
Serving 33 counties, the Arkansas Foodbank, with its headquarters in Little Rock and a location in Warren, is the largest of six food banks in the state. And all were stretched even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sanders says, “While we’ve been improving over the last few years, Arkansas is still ranked second in the
nation for hunger. About 17% of our population struggles with food insecurity. … We are a lower-income state; poverty is always an issue for us.
“So, it’s something that we deal with on a daily basis here at the Foodbank.”
As do the other hunger-relief organizations across the state. Kathy Webb, executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, explains how the pieces fit together.
“We’re the statewide umbrella organization, and we tackle hunger in multiple ways, through helping source food for food banks and pantries, through being knowlegable and working with all the federal nutrition programs through advocacy. … And we’re the lead partner on the No Kid Hungry campaign, which involves a federal reimbursement program. And we do SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the Food Stamp Program) outreach across the state.”
For distribution, the Alliance also plants mass quantities of fruits and vegetables and “gleans” produce. “Farmers all over state let us come in after they’ve picked; they’ll let us take everything else,” Webb says. “It’s a Biblical term.”
She continues, “Even though we’re all separate, we all work together. There are six Feeding America Food Banks, and they’re all on the board of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. … Most of the food pantries get their food from food banks.”
In addition to the Arkansas Foodbank, there is: the Food Bank of North Central Arkansas (Norfork); the Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas (Jonesboro); Harvest Regional Food Bank (Texarkana); Northwest Arkansas Food Bank (Bethel Heights, near Springdale); and River Valley Regional Food Bank (Fort Smith).
With businesses closed and jobs lost, the coronavirus outbreak has only compounded the food banks’ challenge of meeting already high demand.
At Harvest Regional Food Bank, which serves nine counties in southwest Arkansas and one in Texas, Executive Director Camille Wrinkle says, “We’re seeing a big need, especially with the recent shutdown of a couple of our large employers. That really put people in a bind — especially families that were already living paycheck to paycheck. … Our food lines have gotten longer. And we’ve had to serve more people and provide more to those people we are already serving.”
In the northeast part of the state, they’ve had to contend with significant storm damage in addition to the coronavirus.
Says Christie Jordan, CEO of the Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas in Jonesboro, “We serve 12 counties, and prior to COVID-19, there were nearly 75,000 people in northeast Arkansas who were food-insecure. … And then Jonesboro was also impacted by a tornado, as was Harrisburg. In Jonesboro, especially, it hit our business district. So, we have businesses that had to close because of the tornado, and that just added to more people filing for unemployment.”
Statewide schools closing due to the pandemic created a pressing hunger problem. After all, public schools are where many students get their meals in a state where more than 60 percent of children qualify for free/reduced-price lunches and where one in four children struggles with hunger.
Jordan says, “Families are having to provide three meals a day for their children, and that has really put a strain on family budgets, especially when we see unemployment rising.”
To supplement a Backpack Program, which sends students home with weekend meals, the Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas and others have started assembling family food boxes of canned goods and meal components to distribute.
“Some of the schools are delivering those to families’ homes,” Jordan says. “Some are partnering with other entities to deliver them. And some are having grab-and-go lunches at the schools, and families can pick up food boxes when they come to get lunch.”
The coronavirus has created another kind of hardship for hunger-relief organizations, in that it is a virus. Extra
safety precautions must be taken to protect hunger-relief workers, food recipients and the food supply.
Sanders says, “Not only have we in some ways nearly doubled the people in need, but we’ve had to change the entire model of how we work because of social distancing. Most of our pantries are operated by senior citizens, so we’ve had to work very quickly with them to say, ‘This is how you need to work in order to stay safe.’”
No longer could volunteers congregate to receive pallets and pack boxes. No longer could food pantry doors be opened and clients be welcomed inside.
“All that was gone overnight,” Sanders says. “‘We can’t have 20 of you in the kitchen putting boxes together. You need to find a larger area. You need to have only three or four of you work at a time. You need to wear masks. And you don’t let the clients in. Keep them in their cars; they drive through.’ All of that changed.
“And we had about 15% of our pantries say, ‘We’re out for now — we’re done.’ And I understood that.”
Furthermore, food banks, which rely heavily on a volunteer workforce, had to close their doors to community helpers.
Jordan says, “That has been really tough on us to have to stop taking volunteers. We just feel that it’s the responsible thing to do. When you think of having 100 different people in your facility over the course of a month, the number of people that you come into contact with increases the opportunity to spread COVID-19. And, so, as opposed to bringing volunteers into our facilities, we have hired some temporary employees.”
Silver lining: At the Arkansas Foodbank, Sanders says, they were able to hire displaced restaurant staff through Get Shift Done (getshiftdone.org/centralarkansas). The donations-based platform allows service workers to assist nonprofits and get paid from the fund.
Getting and giving help
For those who need food, Webb says, “One, I would try to find the closest pantry for that immediate emergency assistance. At most of those pantries, you’re going to get food for two or three days. And then I would apply for SNAP. Because that’s going to be, hopefully, a dollar amount that’s really going to make a difference in the amount of food you have for your family.”
For those in a position to help with hunger-relief efforts, there are several ways.
Sanders says, “If anyone has a desire to bring canned goods or to have a local food drive, we’re accepting those. We have not stressed them due to social distancing. … But we’re still accepting food donations. And then it won’t be long, and all our volunteering will pick back up. It’s always a place where we need volunteers.”
For now, however, money donations are most essential. “Funds are what we need a tremendous amount of at this point in time because we’re having to purchase food,” Sanders says. “We’re having to purchase extra boxes, and the expenses are quite large.”
Jordan says a recent increase in monetary giving has kept the Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas going.
“Had it not been for that, we honestly would have had to close our doors,” she says. “We had gotten to a point where we just didn’t have a lot of food to go out to our food pantries in different areas. So, the increase in donations has been incredible. We’re so grateful.
“One of the things I wish we could help people understand … this is something that we do 12 months out of the year. It’s not something that we just do around the holidays. It’s not something we do just during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is work that we do throughout the year. And we’re only able to serve others because we have generous donors who allow us to do that.”
Hunger relief resources
To locate your nearest food bank, see the map or visit arhungeralliance.org, scroll down and click “I Need Food.” To receive — or to give — assistance, contact your nearest food bank; information is listed below.
Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance
Arkansas Foodbank, Little Rock/Warren
Text FINDFOOD to 844-381-FOOD (3663)
Food Bank of North Central Arkansas, Norfork
Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas, Jonesboro
Harvest Regional Food Bank, Texarkana
Northwest Arkansas Food Bank,
Bethel Heights (near Springdale)
River Valley Regional Food Bank, Fort Smith
Neighborhood mini pantries make a big difference
Occasionally Judy Ostrowski of Conway contributed to the freestanding neighborhood food pantry on Prince Street near the First Presbyterian Church. Sometimes. When it was empty. And when she actually remembered.
“I‘d mean to buy some items to stock it, but forget once I got in the store,” she says.
She doesn’t forget anymore. She can’t. An October meeting with a young woman and her baby is forever etched in her memory and heart.
“I go to stock the pantry when I encounter this mother. … She has a child with her that is wearing a soiled T-shirt for a diaper,” she says. “The mom is visibly upset, and I can tell she’s crying.”
Ostrowski says she encouraged the mother to take what she needed and insisted on buying her diapers.
“’I‘m not a bad mother,’” the woman told Ostrowski, her lip trembling. Ostrowski responded, “‘I don’t think you are. I just think you are having a really hard night, though.’” The mother accepted only a minimal amount of food, insistent on not taking more than she immediately needed.
“She just thanked me and told me what a good night it was going to be,” Ostrowski remembers with a quaver in her voice. “Something so small just changed her entire outlook. It was so touching how thankful she was.”
A Little Free Pantry grassroots movement has roots in Arkansas. In 2016, Jessica McClard of Fayetteville launched her Little Free Pantry, patterned after the Little Free Library. McClard says there are about 100 free pantries in Arkansas, and there are more than 900 in the world — as far as the Netherlands and Australia.
After Ostrowski’s story touched friends and members of her Team Red, White & Blue veterans support chapter, she says, “We have had that pantry filled every day since.”
Keeping it supplied with boxed meals, canned goods, cereal, grab-and-go items and toiletries is a continual community effort, Ostrowski says: “It is filled and emptied — emptied completely — every day. Sometimes within hours of us stocking it. That tells you the need for that.”
It tells of the need for help and the need for dignity. The mini-pantry movement fosters both.
“I love the fact that it is anonymous,” Ostrowski says. “Someone doesn’t have to feel embarrassed.”
While she didn’t start it, Ostrowski says, this little pantry has “just become my little passion.
“Every time I stock that, I’m thinking, ‘Someone doesn’t have to go hungry.’”
A Little Free Pantry map is available at the site littlefreepantry.org.
The cooperative commitment
For Maria Smedley — vice president of Human Resources and Corporate Strategy for Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation (AECC) and Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc. (AECI) — hunger is not just a cause close to her heart. It’s an issue that has been close to home.
“My grandmother is from Marvell, Arkansas, in Phillips County, which is one of the poorest counties in the state,” Smedley says. “She had a huge garden, and she would provide food to needy families. She would let them pick food from her garden. She would share seeds with them to help them start their own gardens.
“I didn’t really understand the charity in that until I was in a situation where I became food-insecure.”
And for Smedley, that was as a student.
“I suffered from hunger while at college,” she says. “And, in fact, I ended up dropping out of college and returning home because of the food-insecurity aspect of trying to go to college and have a regular meal every day.”
Her experience is what prompted her to volunteer in Washington, D.C., soup kitchens when she worked for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and to join the Arkansas Foodbank Board of Directors in 2012, soon after she relocated to Arkansas.
That year was the first time AECC/AECI participated in the THV11/Arkansas Foodbank Summer Cereal Drive, with staff collecting about 500 boxes of cereal in the Little Rock headquarters’ lobby. (Since then, monetary donations have been encouraged, as they take up a lot less space. Besides, for $1, the Foodbank can purchase that same box of cereal that costs $3.46 in the supermarket.)
Participation has increased dramatically over the years, thanks to the efforts of a Summer Cereal Drive Committee and many of the state’s 17 electric distribution co-ops joining the cause (with their food and money donations aiding food banks in their service areas).
Last year’s total was 23,303 boxes — or the equivalent of $23,303. The Electric Cooperatives’ eight-year grand total: 108,308 boxes — or the equivalent of $108,308.
“Every year, the employees have just blown me away with their generosity and creativity and commitment to raising money for the Summer Cereal Drive,” Smedley says.
Creativity is the key word this year, due to social-distancing measures. This year’s activities — including donations via payroll deduction, T-shirt and face mask sales, a TikTok video competition and a silent auction — will take place online/remotely. But Smedley knows employees will rise to the challenge.
“We have a blessed workforce,” she says. “We have to work — we have to keep the lights on. We’re still getting our paychecks every other week. And we’re a generous workforce, and our employees have demonstrated time and time again that they will give from their hearts to support Arkansans.
“I think it’s because it really aligns with our mission anyway — to provide reliable, affordable electricity and services responsibly. And the areas in which we provide electricity are some of the poorest areas and some of the areas where food insecurity is most high. So, our employees understand that. They understand that some of our members may have to make tough choices like: ‘Do I pay my electricity bill or do I buy food?’”
The Summer Cereal Drive is just one of the ways AECC/AECI employees support hunger relief.
Another way is volunteering time. After all, the Arkansas Foodbank is just up the street and around the corner from the Little Rock campus. “We allow employees to volunteer at the Foodbank three times a year during work hours because volunteers are the lifeblood of the Foodbank,” Smedley says.
The state’s electric distribution cooperatives support hunger relief in various ways. Many participate in the Summer Cereal Drive. And they support causes through outreach programs like Operation Round-Up, which allows members to have their monthly bill rounded up to the nearest dollar with the remainder going to charitable organizations.
At First Electric Cooperative, for example, Tonya Sexton, vice president of marketing and development, says, “The Operation Round-Up Board of Trustees values the work of those fighting hunger in Arkansas. More than $70,000 has been given to agencies fighting hunger since the board’s inception in 1998.” Sexton herself is actively involved with hunger-relief efforts.
“I was introduced to the work of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance in 2012 when I was asked to co-chair the Hunger Action Breakfast,” she says. “I soon realized I believed in their mission and wanted to be part of a passionate and compassionate group. In 2015, I joined the board and was amazed by the teamwork displayed by the Alliance, food banks and pantries working together to end hunger in Arkansas.”
For several years, Petit Jean Electric Cooperative, in a partnership with Choctaw Food Bank, has offered members struggling to pay for both food and electricity a caring and creative solution. Members can work out a payment arrangement enabling them to put money toward their electric bill and receive food from Choctaw.
Terry Drew, member services representative for Petit Jean Electric Cooperative, says, “The last thing we want as a co-op is to see a person’s service discontinued for any reason. When people are trying to help themselves — and that’s one of the criteria that we have — it’s not a handout, but a hand up.
“One of the co-op principles that we go by is ‘Concern for Community.’ And what better way to be involved in your community than to help people get food and to keep their electricity on?”