Who doesn’t love soup?
A savory vessel transporting golden warmth to the heart, with a stopover in the belly, soup has been a nutritious comfort since the dawn of cooking. Soup is versatile and eclectic, and making it is like making music, with all the instruments, or in this case ingredients, coming together to create magic you can taste.
While a go-to for nourishment, soup is also a go-to for the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF), whose annual Central Arkansas Soup Sunday fundraiser, in its own way, nourishes the underserved and underrepresented people of Arkansas.
“There's just something about a bowl of soup that is so warm and comforting, it makes you feel good, and it's even better enjoyed with good company,” says Ellen Coulter, who, with her husband Nathan, co-chairs this year’s Soup Sunday. “And honestly that's kind of how this whole event makes you feel. Soup Sunday is such a heartwarming event.”
In its 42nd year (counting the 2021 virtual version), with a fundraising goal of $113,500, Soup Sunday is scheduled for March 5, and proceeds will support AACF’s efforts to shape policy on behalf of people, especially children, who face challenges on the path to a healthy and productive life.
“Some of the policies we push for benefit every child in Arkansas,” AACF Communications Director Brooke Edwards says, “but we are most concerned with kids who live with families with low incomes, kids who are involved with the juvenile justice system, kids who are in foster care. Basically we want as few barriers as possible for any kid in Arkansas to have a real chance to lead a full, healthy life.”
Founded in 1977, the AACF — through research, policy analysis, advocacy, lobbying, training and more — strives to influence and shape the decisions and legislation that affect people who might otherwise have no voice with their government. In that regard, the AACF is an organization that is a little harder to define and quantify than the philanthropies and charities that can measure their impact in dollars raised and numbers of people fed, clothed, housed or granted scholarships.
“We struggle with how we quantify what we do, because we don’t provide direct services,” AACF Development Director Fran Carter says. “But the fact that when we can get good public policy passed by the legislature and implemented by the state, then it’s benefitting every family across the state.”
That’s what makes Soup Sunday so valuable to AACF. In addition to the dollars raised, it shines a light on the organization and its work on the issues affecting the youth and families of the state, whether that’s extending postpartum care for new mothers or protecting Arkansans’ right to have a say in the creation of state laws.
“AACF isn't a partisan organization, and neither are most of these issues,” Nate Coulter says. “AACF will work with anyone and everyone in the community who is willing to join the team and roll up their sleeves for children and families.”
Nate has been a Soup Sunday fan since he was a kid, hanging with friends from church and his Pulaski Heights neighborhood, enjoying soft drinks and treats and the guilty pleasure of being out on a school night.
“I doubt I was into the soups or the advocacy at 6 years old, but I probably got ice cream and a Sprite, so I was happy,” he says.
This year’s Soup Sunday will feature offerings, including ice cream and confections, from 16 area restaurants, with Cantina Laredo’s Chris Lane as featured chef. Attendees are urged to bring their muffin tins (the better to sample more soups) to The Venue at Westwind in North Little Rock for a flavorful afternoon.
“Soup is a dish designed to be enjoyed in community, and some of AACF's most important tenets are centered around a ‘We're all in this together’ mentality,” Nate says. “Not to mention, by the time March rolls around, some people are looking for any excuse to get out of their house and enjoy some good food and fellowship after months of cold.”
Perhaps the less said about the gluten-free banana bread that wound up in the trash, the food poisoning-inducing sesame noodle dish and the too-chewy-to-eat beef stew, the better. But despite some of the “epic fails” the Coulters have concocted in their kitchen, they are dyed-in-the-wool food fans with a shared passion for local eats, which includes those represented at Soup Sunday.
“We're no experts, but we love to cook and try good food,” Ellen says. “We're always looking for a new local spot to try out or a new recipe challenge in the kitchen. When I heard about the concept of Soup Sunday — basically getting to sample a bunch of local restaurants' best soups — I was like, ‘Oh, this is right up my alley.’
“Even if you're not a foodie, this event has something tasty for everyone, and it's good for all ages, which is part of what makes it awesome.”
Ellen is the deputy public information officer for the Arkansas Department of Transportation, and Nate is an attorney at Mitchell Williams Law Firm. The two met 10 years ago while attending the University of Arkansas.
They endured a long-distance relationship while Nate served a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, but both wound up in St. Louis as Nate was finishing law school at Washington University School of Law. The COVID-19 pandemic postponed their wedding plans from 2020 to 2021, and they welcomed a son last year.
Not all of the couple’s food experiences are misadventures. Ellen can recall a delicious asparagus dish during a recent trip to Germany, and among their many favorite local spots the couple includes The Faded Rose, Three Fold, The Pantry Crest and Cafe Bossa Nova.
“Soup Sunday is perfect for people who appreciate those same things because it's like speed dating for sampling restaurants,” Nate says. “And it's not just soups. There are desserts and other dishes for those who don't get as excited about tomato bisque or gumbo.”
While the Coulters have been on the Soup Sunday committee since 2019, last year’s event was actually Ellen’s first, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed that a perk of the committee service is the meetings at area restaurants.
“We are big supporters of the restaurant industry and love that aspect of this event,” Ellen says. “I think the fact that local restaurants have been coming back to this event for decades speaks for itself. In addition to supporting AACF, they see value added for their own businesses.”
The work of AACF is, of course, the primary reason for Soup Sunday.
In 2022, more than 1,600 participants attended AACF’s 29 outreach events and 35 presentations across the state, where the organization provided advocacy training and data overviews, prepared for the legislative session and stressed the importance of protecting voting rights, among other topics.
Recent efforts have included a storytelling project related to a possible cutoff of public health emergency Medicaid money, the defeat of Arkansas Issue 2 that would have required a 60% vote of the people rather than a simple majority to amend the state constitution and a fight to extend select, postpartum Medicaid coverage to 12 months from the current two. AACF will also be hiring a new executive director this year.
The ongoing struggles and those to come will require new generations of advocates and volunteers, like the Coulters, to help open the eyes of legislators, politicians and policy makers.
And with all that heavy lifting ahead, people are going to need to be at full strength. So why not have a little soup?
“You’re going to see people who are there on their own because they know they’re going to run into friends,” Carter says of Soup Sunday. “You’re going to see couples because it’s a fun date out, and you’re going to see families, including families who may have four generations, coming together. It really is neat having that next generation step up and lead Soup Sunday this year.
“It gives us a chance to tell our story.”
Benefiting Arkansas Advocates for Children & Families
March 5, 4 p.m. | The Venue at Westwind | aradvocates.org/events
HAIR & MAKEUP
TIPTON & HURST
TABLE & CHAIRS
THREE FOLD NOODLES + DUMPLING CO.