"Mother Teresa said, 'If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one.' It is one of my favorite quotes. So simple," says Jennifer Martinez Belt, Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance's board president and development director of the Peel Compton Foundation in Bentonville.
Before first serving on the board in 2019 and before working as the chief development officer for the Arkansas Foodbank from 2013 to 2018, Martinez Belt found her passion.
"I worked for Senator Blanche Lincoln who chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee," she says. "It was then that I learned about hunger relief in our state and how critical it was to provide safe and affordable food. I also focused on access to nutritious foods and our issue with food deserts in the state.
"Food, or lack thereof, can be the root cause of so many different issues. And it can be solved."
The alliance is a collaborative nonprofit organization that works on behalf of and with Arkansans facing hunger and those who believe no Arkansan should ever go to bed hungry.
In 2001, the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation awarded funding to examine and improve the existing charitable food distribution system in Arkansas. Three years later, six founding members — the Arkansas Foodbank, Food Bank of North Central Arkansas, Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas, Harvest Regional Food Bank, River Valley Regional Food Bank and the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank — with the assistance of a three-year start-up grant from the Reynolds Foundation, formally incorporated the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance in the state of Arkansas.
In 2008, the Arkansas Hunger Coalition merged with AHRA, thus expanding the scope of the alliance's work into issues of advocacy and anti-hunger policy.
Today, with the support of many individuals, businesses, organizations and state and local government agencies across Arkansas, the alliance remains at the forefront of hunger relief, nutrition education and advocacy.
The alliance has partnerships with Arkansas Children's Hospital, Arkansas Campaign for Grade Level Reading, Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, Arkansas Hunters Feeding the Hungry, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Arkansas Farm Bureau, Little Rock Parks and Recreation, the Arkansas Legislative Hunger Caucus and others to bring reliable sources of food to the hungry and increase awareness that food insecurity contributes to many of the challenges our state faces.
IT'S A SNAP
The Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly known as the Food Stamps Program), provides much needed food assistance for low-income families.
"The key word for me is assistance," Martinez Belt says. "It isn't the only solution, but it does provide some of those healthier options for those working toward being self-sufficient.
"Looking forward I see that SNAP will change with the economic climate and political climate. I think there always needs to be an opportunity for assistance; access to food is a basic need."
According to Martinez Belt, SNAP is the largest and most effective anti-hunger program there is. In addition to the impact it has on low-income Arkansans, it has a huge economic benefit for the whole community. Studies show most people who receive SNAP benefits only receive them for a short time until they get back on their feet.
In 2009, Arkansas ranked No. 1 in the nation in childhood hunger. Today it is fourth.
"The No Kid Hungry program has definitely helped make an impact, but there is still much work to be done," Martinez Belt says.
The goal of the NKH campaign is to help kids get meals where they live, learn and play. Rules changed during the pandemic, allowing schools and nonprofit providers to have more flexibility in the ways they get meals to kids, and helping the alliance learn some valuable new ways to alleviate childhood hunger.
"As the pandemic recedes, we hope we can use some of what we've learned to help more kids who qualify receive school meals, after school meals and summer meals," Martinez Belt says.
The Arkansas Beef Project is a partnership with the Arkansas Cattlemen's Association and Farmers Feeding the World that provides a great deal of protein to hungry families, and it's one of a kind.
"The alliance is the only anti-hunger organization in the U.S. with a beef program, which helps get more protein to low-income Arkansans," Martinez Belt says. "A bill passed by the legislature and funding through Community Development Block Grants allowed us to dramatically increase the amount of beef we'll be able to provide, allowing us to purchase 30 cows per month for three years."
Arkansas cattle ranchers and other protein producers, such as hog, lamb and pork, can donate to the Arkansas Beef Project in three ways: cash donations used to purchase domestic ground beef and process donated animals, live cow or bull donations to be transported to a USDA-approved processing facility or by donating a calf to be raised by a cattleman or cattlewoman and then donated to the program.
All donated protein is distributed in one- or two-pound portions to food banks and food pantries across the state to help food-insecure Arkansans have a reliable source of protein.
A PLATEFUL OF HOPE
On June 16, the Alliance will celebrate its 15th annual Serving Up Solutions fundraiser featuring members of the Arkansas Legislative Hunger Caucus serving meals prepared by some of central Arkansas' most noted chefs.
"Hunger doesn't have a political party, it doesn't take a holiday, it is something everyone wants to get behind," Martinez Belt says. "The reason I am so passionate about it is because it is a solvable problem. I believe in a time when our state will not have hunger. We can do it. We will do it."
HAIR & MAKEUP
Serving Up Solutions
June 16, 6 p.m. | Albert Pike Masonic Center