Arkansas is the 11th largest food producer in the United States and ranks first for rice and poultry production, fifth for sorghum and sixth for soybeans and grapes. Yet despite the state being a breadbasket of the nation, Arkansas ranks first in senior hunger according to the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger, second in severe hunger and overall hunger according to the USDA and tied in second place for child hunger according to Feeding America. The Natural State is succeeded only marginally by Texas at being the worst in hunger in the country.
Alarming statistics from Arkansas Foodbank, an independent non-profit attempting the herculean task of addressing this problem, reveal that 18.4 percent of Arkansans do not know where their next meal is coming from, and shockingly, this includes one in four children and seniors.
So why is almost 20 percent of Arkansas going hungry despite the abundance of food in our region? According to Foodbank CEO Rhonda Sanders, it all comes down to economics.
“If you look at hunger nationally, the area with the greatest amount of people struggling with hunger is in the South. According to Feeding America, nearly 90 percent of counties with the highest food insecurity rates in the country are in the South. Furthermore, food insecurity rates tend to be higher in rural counties. Arkansas is mostly rural, and many rural areas lack infrastructure for people to access food, and therefore become food deserts.” (The USDA defines food deserts as parts of the country with “vapid” resources of fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods. Food deserts are usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers markets and healthy food providers).
“Food insecurity and poverty are closely related,” continues Sanders. “Arkansas has one of the lowest median income rates in the nation. This means more people lack the financial support to pay their medical bills, home utilities and provide food. The food bank steps in to help fill the gap for thousands of families who are working, but not making enough to make ends meet.”
18.4 percent of Arkansans don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and shockingly, this includes one in four children and seniors.
Food banking in the U.S. began in the late 1960s when a man named John van Hengel started soliciting donations of food from area grocery stores for his soup kitchen in Phoenix, Arizona. The idea was to rescue and redistribute the food that normally would go to waste and give it to organizations that fed the hungry. He received so much food that he had to open a warehouse to store it all. Thus he inadvertently created the first food bank in the country. For the Arkansas Foodbank, retail and wholesale stores make up the largest source of food donations. “Nearly 40 percent of all the food we receive comes from local grocery stores like Walmart, Kroger, Harps, Target, etc.,” explains Sanders. “We partner with around 100 stores in our service area as part of our Retail Pick-up Program.”
The Arkansas Foodbank was founded in 1984 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with the aim of serving several central south Arkansas counties by providing an affordable and credible food source for local centers serving hungry people. Within two years the Foodbank was regularly distributing 1 million pounds of food a year. In 2016 alone, it distributed 25 million pounds of food.
At the time there was also an organization called the Arkansas Rice Depot, which was working toward a similar end of alleviating hunger in the region. The Rice Depot was founded in 1982 by local rice farmers who realized they had a surplus of crop and many hungry neighbors. This cooperative of generous farmers made a huge difference, and in the ‘90s they expanded their reach with the launch of the Food for Kids program, thanks to an Arkansas public school nurse who noticed children arriving at school hungry. The backpack program, as it became known, was so successful that it has now been replicated in more than 40 states and Mexico because of its effectiveness in addressing childhood hunger.
In 2016 the two entities merged in order to pool their resources and better serve the central Arkansas community and is now known simply as Arkansas Foodbank. It does, however, still carry the Food for Kids, Food for Families and Food for Seniors programs started by the Arkansas Rice Depot.
The Foodbank is heavily dependent on volunteers and donations in order to function, and as such their new annual fundraiser, Harvest Night, is of vital importance. As event chairs of only the second Harvest Night so far, husband and wife duo Haley and Robert Klein are keen to make the event a roaring success and raising the bar for future events.
President and Executive Broker at The Property Group, Robert was raised on a family motto of, “When you do well, you do good,” and has carried this into his business. “When The Property Group was founded,” he explains, “one of our missions was to have the company base its foundations on giving back. I believe that in order for people to be invested in an organization, you need to find somewhere they are able to get involved and see the impact they are making.”
“The Foodbank is an organization that meets a need that isn’t always out in the open,” adds Haley. “The discussion about hunger and food insecurity isn’t something most people feel comfortable talking about. Working with the Foodbank was an easy decision when we looked at the impact their work has on our neighbors and our state.
“It was shocking to learn that one in five Arkansans struggle to provide enough food for their families,” she continues. “Many of us, Robert and I included, take for granted the fact that we have a fridge full of food at home. It’s hard to hear that many of our neighbors are struggling with food insecurity. The cost of living has increased so much in the last 20 years, but the minimum wage hasn’t really changed with the times. The South has traditionally always been poorer than areas in the rest of the country, and people may have to choose between rent, utilities, medical bills or going to the grocery store to feed their children. No one should have to make that decision.”
“The Foodbank helps find pathways to connect people with resources,” continues Robert, “connecting them to pantries, access to SNAP (food stamps) application, etc. Many of the people who seek the Foodbank assistance have jobs or have hit hard times. Sometimes just a helping hand during those trying times can clear the path for long-term solutions to take hold.
“I worked with an organization in my college years that helped mentor kids in need. Having heard their stories of hunger has stuck with me all these years. As a father to two kids now myself, I cannot fathom children being in such need for food. We know that when people are hungry they aren’t able to reach their full potential, which is why we hope to exceed our fundraising goal this year, which will go a long way at the Foodbank. Did you know that just $1 can provide five meals to someone in need?”
The Foodbank has been under intense pressure to meet demand in recent years, and when the Foodbank struggles, vulnerable families struggle too. According to Sanders there are alarming trends forming of shrinking donations and increased regulation that will be the immediate challenges of the Foodbank.
“Food insecurity peaked in Arkansas during the great recession in 2008-2010. For several years those numbers plateaued, and we were dealing with some of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country. In some counties, one in three people were struggling with hunger. Many of these Arkansans were middle class families that suddenly found themselves in a situation they never have faced before: no money to afford food.
“Now the new data we are receiving is five years since the recession and the numbers are slowly beginning to decline. We have yet to recede to the pre-recession food insecurity levels, but hopefully we can continue the progress of getting there.”
The merger between Arkansas Rice Depot and Arkansas Foodbank goes a long way in helping meet these challenges. “It will allow us to meet challenges with cost savings, efficiencies and increased donor bases. By merging, we have the ability to increase the use of technology and innovations to distribute food to hungry Arkansans. We are currently planning for the next five years and will include tools such as bar coding and voice activation in the warehouse and additional just-in-time deliveries in the field. Utilizing these strategies will allow us to target our resources and do more with less.”
Local, state and national government recognize the importance of providing adequate resources for citizens. Some government programs that help feed hungry people include SNAP, WIC, TEFAP Commodities, school breakfast, school lunch, summer meals and after school meals. Locally, city and county governments provide support to soup kitchens and pantries and partner with local organizations to connect hungry people with resources. Collaborations between the public, private and nonprofit sectors are the most effective at addressing hunger.
Haley and Robert urge all citizens to come support the Foodbank’s invaluable work at this year’s Harvest Night, and are hoping to capitalize on its being one of the most child-friendly events on the season’s schedule.
“Since this is a family event, we know that having fun things for the kids is a must!” says Robert. “We are super excited to have a mobile petting zoo and Rudy Roo Roo the kangaroo to join us this year. There will be rabbits, a llama, chickens, baby goats, pigs, all for the kids to meet and learn more about. I am most excited about Rudy, the kangaroo! What kid doesn’t want to get their picture taken with all the animals?”
“I think Robert is more excited about the kangaroo than the kids will be!” laughs Haley.
“September is Hunger Action Month,” continues Robert. “Along with Razorback football and cooler weather, it’s the perfect time to host a family-friendly event for a great cause. Kids enter free, and tickets to Harvest Night are only $40. That small amount can feed a child for one month! We want Harvest Night to feel laid back, fun and relaxed. You know, just some football and barbecue with 300 of your closest friends!”