The numbers seem made up.
We scroll past them on social media. We hear them from the mouths of our favorite news anchors. We see them on billboards and read them in reports and yet somewhere, in the back of our minds, we think, “No, that can’t be true.”
And yet, they are. One in five Arkansans doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from. For kids, it jumps to one in four. In rural communities, it’s one in three.
The numbers seem made up.
And for Hollyann and Josh Neal, they were enough to make them join the fight.
The seed was planted young with Hollyann. Growing up in a farming family in Walnut Ridge, she developed an early understanding of the vital role nourishment plays in every aspect of life, an interest she carried into her current day-to-day life as a corporate buyer for Dillard’s.
For Josh, his worlds converged as a senior private banker at Arvest, which holds its annual Million Meals campaign to aid hungry Arkansans, and a member of The Church at Rock Creek, which provides food for students through the Feed Arkansas Kids program.
A perfect storm of these elements, plus an active young professionals group, drew the Neals to the Arkansas Foodbank. Beginning its march in 1982, the Foodbank is the state’s largest non-governmental provider of food aid, making it a key piece of the foundation in the fight against hunger in Arkansas.
The nonprofit’s main purpose is the acquisition, storage and distribution of food items. While a small percentage of goods are purchased at a wholesale rate, the majority of food is donated from retailers like Kroger and Walmart, wholesalers, manufacturers, regional farmers and food drives.
Headquartered in Little Rock, the Foodbank partners with and sources food to more than 450 pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and children’s programs in 33 counties in central and southern Arkansas.
Of the estimated 515,000 Arkansans — 17.2% of the state’s total population — with inconsistent access to food, the Foodbank works to serve 264,000 people experiencing food insecurity — more than 78,000 of which are children — within its designated area.
“Without a doubt, food insecurity impacts your neighbors,” Hollyann says. “Those statistics are too high to not know someone who is hungry.”
Feed Arkansas Kids is one of the Foodbank’s programs that partners with 50 schools in central Arkansas, providing hungry kids with backpacks full of food over the weekend during the school year, each backpack containing seven meals and two snacks.
“When I first got involved with the backpack program in 2007, we were feeding about 60 kids each week. Now they’re delivering 1,652 backpacks every week,” Josh says. “I remember thinking 60 was a lot, but when you hear the numbers of hungry kids who are expected to perform in class at the same levels as well-nourished kids, it’s hard to process. And that’s just in this one backpack program.”
It’s programs like these that help dispel the stereotypes that can come with Foodbank assistance. At nearly 35%, working families with young children are the fastest-growing demographic in emergency food programs, many turning to the Foodbank for the first time after roadblocks like unexpected medical bills or car trouble. The same is true for senior citizens. In fact, African-American and Hispanic seniors between ages 60 and 65 who live in the South and support a grandchild are more likely to experience food insecurity than their peers.
“Food insecurity impacts everything from classroom disruptions to crime,” Hollyann says. “So many social issues are directly tied back to food insecurity, things like unemployment, health care, building an educated workforce. Our goal is to change those statistics.”
It’s no coincidence that Arkansas ranks second in the nation for food insecurity and seventh in adult obesity, just like it’s no secret that healthy foods will cost you a pretty penny more at the grocery store. And for Arkansans already toeing the line of food insecurity, fresh produce just isn’t an option.
For the Foodbank, it’s a battle against the clock. Because of issues with storage, transportation to pantries and further transportation to people’s tables, much of the food distributed is nonperishable, and therefore often not the most nutritious.
“It’s a constant struggle to get these products to people where they are,” Josh says, recalling meeting a man who had taken four different buses across town just to get to a food pantry, only to have to repeat that process with all his groceries in tow. And for rural Arkansans, it’s even further, making fresh produce nearly impossible and keeping health concerns ever present.
To fight this issue, the Foodbank launched a new initiative, a strategic plan to increase the amount of fresh produce provided from 4 million pounds a year to 10 million pounds a year by the end of 2020. That translates to about one extra truckload of produce every week.
The Foodbank will also be adding an on-staff nutritionist to analyze inventory and food distributed through associated programs, along with furthering research into ways to create seamless access to healthy food.
“The thing we can’t do is control the causes of hunger,” Hollyann says, “but it’s our job to improve accessibility of nutritious food to impoverished Arkansans. That means supporting the Foodbank in exploring ways to combat hunger.”
And the Neals aren’t alone. Volunteers are an integral piece to the Foodbank operations puzzle. In 2018 alone, volunteers contributed more than 33,000 hours of service, the equivalent of 16 full-time staff members, by helping to sort, label and repackage food, aid in office work and man booths at offsite events.
Hollyann and Josh do a little bit of all those things, and note that, frankly, it’s an easy ask.
“It’s a cause that’s easy to get behind. We’re feeding hungry people. It’s that simple,” Josh says, pointing out that one dollar donated to the Foodbank provides five meals. “There’s not been an event we’ve worked where at least four or five people haven’t asked how they can get involved.”
“This isn’t a partisan issue,” Hollyann adds. “You talk about a hungry child or a food insecure senior citizen and I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t care about that. We’re feeding neighbors. We have tangible goals with tangible work. Pack a backpack with your own two hands and you can feed a child this weekend.”
To mark Hunger Action Month, the Foodbank will host its fourth annual Harvest Night, a casual, family-friendly fundraiser on the nonprofit’s campus with Southern food, entertainment and even a livestream of the Razorbacks-Ole Miss game. And while the couple, who is chairing the event, is looking forward to a fun night benefiting the Foodbank, they’re more interested in introducing people to the work the nonprofit does and taking away the intimidation that can come when first joining a cause.
But for the Neals, the biggest payoff is helping people regain control of their own lives. And for that reason, they’ll keep working to help the Foodbank feed their neighbors, to spread the word, to change the numbers.
Saturday, Sept. 7 | 5 p.m.
Arkansas Foodbank Warehouse