It's a simple fact, but one that's difficult to digest. Hunger is on the rise in Arkansas. More and more families struggle with food insecurity, and for every four children, one doesn’t have enough to eat.

The need is critical with an estimated 160,000 more Arkansans utilizing the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance’s services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through hundreds of partnerships with pantries, schools, feeding programs and the six Feeding America food banks across the state, the Alliance is working, harder than ever, to provide resources and access to nutritious meals.

According to Patty Barker, though resources have been stretched, the Alliance has continued to secure food and funds for the emergency food network, increase participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), provide financial management skills through its educational Cooking Matters program, advocate for public policy removing barriers to access food and increase participation in USDA child nutrition programs as a lead partner in the No Kid Hungry campaign.

As the director of NKH for Arkansas, Barker’s job is to connect kids in need with effective nutrition programs like school breakfast, summer and afterschool meals and teach their families how to cook healthy meals on a budget. The national campaign works to surround children with healthy food where they live, learn and play and the Alliance is key to meeting that goal in Arkansas.

“I do this work because I believe every child should have the support and resources they need to thrive,” Barker says.

“If we can help meet those basic nutrition needs by ensuring that children struggling with hunger have access to a healthy, good-tasting meal three times a day, every day, then we are vastly improving the chances that those kids will stay healthy, they will stay active and engaged and they will perform well in school. They will thrive.”

Growing Healthy & Strong

“Childhood hunger is a very solvable problem if you have dedicated people working on those solutions,” Barker says.

In 2009, Arkansas ranked No. 1 in the nation in childhood hunger. Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to alleviating childhood hunger in America, chose Arkansas as a proof-of-concept state to execute its strategy of reducing childhood hunger by improving access to federal nutrition programs like National School Lunch, National School Breakfast, SNAP, Summer Meals and Afterschool Meals programs.

“In 2010, the Alliance and SOS joined with then-Governor Mike Beebe and First Lady Ginger Beebe in launching the Arkansas NKH campaign, and Governor Asa Hutchinson has maintained that strong support and leadership,” Barker says. “With generous support from multiple corporate, state and community partners, the Arkansas NKH campaign has become a successful public-private partnership working to end childhood hunger in Arkansas.”

Barker notes there is still work to be done, but the campaign’s progress is clear in each NKH program area. More than 72% of school districts now offer Breakfast After the Bell in one or more of their schools, and Arkansas ranks sixth in the nation in the percentage of students who participate in the school breakfast program.

“The number of school districts offering meals during afterschool hours and throughout the summer has grown steadily since the beginning of the campaign, along with new community organization partnerships with regional food banks, faith leaders, city parks, youth programs and more,” Barker says.

And more than 43,000 individuals and families have learned to shop smarter and cook healthier through Cooking Matters classes and grocery store tours.

“Hearing our partners describe the smiles on kids’ faces when they are handed a much-needed meal and seeing schools and communities come together to find more ways to serve those meals to their kids – in the classroom, at the neighborhood library or park, or delivered to bus stops or straight to their door – that never gets old.”

Pandemic-Sized Portions

Then came 2020.

“The economic and health ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to reverse much of the progress made over the last decade,” Barker says. “Feeding America estimated the child food insecurity rate for Arkansas would increase from 23.1% to 32.3% in 2020, with an additional 65,000 Arkansas children facing hunger.”

In response, the SOS and the Arkansas NKH campaign expanded the number of in-school and out-of-school emergency meal delivery support grants to providers across the state, eventually approving more than $1.4 million in grants to school districts and community organizations, providing much needed meals to kids whether schools were open or closed and throughout the summer.

“With the help of additional grant support from the Walmart Foundation, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and others, we have continued to support the front-line child nutrition providers who are developing innovative ways to provide nutritious meals to kids all year long so they can thrive.”

One silver lining of the pandemic, Barker adds, has been the flexibilities offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to school districts to provide universal free meals to all students, regardless of family income, and thereby removing one of the biggest barriers to school meal participation: social stigma.

“We plan to work with all NKH partners, on the state and national level, to emphasize the need for the permanent adoption of Healthy School Meals for All and to encourage school districts to share their best practices and successes in school meal participation.”

Hungry No More

On June 17, the Alliance and the Arkansas Legislative Hunger Caucus will present the 14th annual Serving Up Solutions event to raise money to support the Alliance’s mission and also to raise awareness for food resources around the state. This year’s virtual event includes an online auction, mini concerts by Arkansas artists and treats from Cocoa Belle Chocolates for ticketholders.

Members of the caucus representing both chambers and both sides of the aisle will assist with the event, delivering specially prepared meals from Trio’s restaurant and wine pairings from O’Looney’s Wine and Liquor to event sponsors and virtual attendees. Local hunger relief organizations in the communities these lawmakers represent will receive mini grants from the Alliance based partly on lawmakers' recommendations, and many have also signed up to volunteer at these pantries.

“Our goal has not only been to end childhood hunger, but also to put sustainable partners and programs in place that will endure the test of time,” Barker says. “I think we have accomplished that over the last 10 years, and that is the reason why local, state and national funders continue to support the NKH program.

“Hunger has many causes and consequences, and we have to go after them all.”

By the Numbers

According to Feeding America, Map the Meal Gap 2020, Arkansas is making inroads to turn the tide on childhood hunger through efforts like the No Kid Hungry campaign.

The number of food-insecure children has declined more than 19% from 2010 to 2020.

Arkansas is now the fourth highest in the nation for childhood hunger, down from first place in 2009.

A poverty rate of 17.2% mirrors the state’s overall food insecurity rate, indicating that more than one in five Arkansans struggles with both the impacts of poverty and hunger.