High inflation the past year may have taught many Arkansans how to stretch a dollar. But no one can do that like the Arkansas Foodbank, which has for years provided as much bang for each buck as it possibly can in its mission to feed the hungry and fight food insecurity in the state.
That includes making the best use of the dollars raised by the Foodbank’s annual Empty Bowls fundraiser. This year’s event co-chairs Jordon and Matt Addison, who, perhaps more so than their predecessors, can appreciate the almost magical way the Foodbank wrings meals out of money.
“They can take one dollar and stretch it into five meals, which is just insane to me,” Jordon says.
Last year alone, the Arkansas Foodbank distributed 40.1 million pounds of food, which translates to 33.4 million meals that fed more than 280,000 Arkansans.
“Food does not stay on the shelves there very long,” Jordon says.
Since 1984 the Arkansas Foodbank has connected people with programs and partnered with other agencies to help feed residents in its 33-county distribution area. Foodbank programs include Food for Families, which partners with 317 agencies, Food for Children, which works with school pantries and offers backpack programs and summer feeding initiatives, and Food for Seniors, which combats senior hunger through monthly food boxes, home deliveries and SNAP outreach.
The programs are fighting trends that have placed the state among some dubious rankings. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Arkansas is the second hungriest state in the nation, with a half-million people, or 17.3%, facing hunger. It is ranked highest in the nation for “very low food security.”
Additionally, one in five of the state’s children are at risk of going hungry, and one in seven Arkansans struggle to provide enough food.
Last year the Foodbank fed 15,192 seniors, though 73,000 are food insecure, in the Foodbank’s distribution area. In those 33 counties, 87,000 children face hunger, which the Foodbank battled by providing more than 150,000 backpack meal kits in 2022.
Demand spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the current economic situation, it hasn’t subsided. But, Matt says, the Foodbank hasn’t faltered.
“The demand for the Foodbank in Arkansas increased 37% in 2020 due to the pandemic,” he says. “It never closed its doors throughout the pandemic as well. Never turned away a hungry Arkansan.”
In response, the Foodbank stepped up its efforts and donations increased.
“Every bit of food that’s on those shelves comes from dollars raised and corporate partnerships and food donations,” Jordon says.
That’s what makes Empty Bowls, set for May 12 at The Venue at Oakdale in North Little Rock, so important to the Foodbank’s mission. The event also represents an opportunity to shake things up.
Jordon, marketing manager at agriculture marketing agency Beck Ag, and Matt, senior client manager at Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corp (known as Farmer Mac), are admittedly not your conventional philanthropists or corporate heads with wealth and name recognition.
“What we have donated is our time, our hands and our voice for advocacy,” Jordon says. “I think what we really want to do is encourage couples and young people like us to not be intimidated and think you have to donate a whole bunch of money to make a difference.”
Jordon’s mother dealt with food insecurity as a teenager and as a single mother before overcoming her own perilous situation. Growing up, Jordon lived in a number of different states and towns, eventually landing in Conway. It was there she met fellow UCA student Matt, though it was as coworkers at then-Liberty Bank rather than the typical college social channels.
Through their personal experiences, volunteer opportunities with former and current employers, plus volunteer efforts with the Arkansas and Northeast Arkansas Foodbanks, the Addisons have forged a more personal connection to the state’s hunger fighting efforts.
It is, they feel, what makes them a good fit for Empty Bowls.
“Throughout my life there’s been some ups and downs. Matt can relate to that, too,” Jordon says. “It’s just typical family things you go through, financial situations when you’re a child. Sometimes things can be a little iffy, and you see that. You see the stress on [a parent’s] face, and you see that they’re the sole provider and they’re worried about it.”
The couple’s unique experiences and relative youth have resulted in some major tweaks for Empty Bowls.
To grow attendance — the event was packed at Little Rock’s Robinson Center Ballroom last year — Empty Bowls was moved to North Little Rock. The theme is “Summer Salute” and aims to recreate a summer evening dining experience in Sicily featuring pastas, breads, cheeses, pizzas and wine, with the ambition of having all 33 Foodbank counties represented in some way.
With one dollar representing five meals, Jordon says the goal is to raise more than a million meals for Arkansas’ hungry. And that’s the point, she says: People should know how much just $1 helps and that the money raised goes right back onto the warehouse shelves and those of the Foodbank’s 402 partners and to its 129 mobile distribution trucks.
“This is what we want people to really understand,” Jordon says. “Your money stays in Arkansas, and it is used to feed Arkansans. That’s it.”
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