The Arkansas Foodbank faces a big challenge. One in six Arkansans struggle to provide food for their families, and Arkansas is the second highest state in the nation for food insecurity. What that means is that many Arkansans do not know where they will get their next meal. It is not a list on which we want to be at the top. So volunteers across the state and the staff of the Arkansas Foodbank are working to change that statistic and make life better for the people they serve.
I remember the first time I understood the reality of hunger in our state. After college, a friend asked me to help her with her “little sister.” With her busy schedule, I would sometimes drive the girl “home” from church or another activity to a motel room she shared with her family. I witnessed a family of eight prepare and share two small frozen pizzas in the motel room microwave. That young girl depended on the two meals she received each day at school, and her family needed the help. I’ve played that picture in my mind so many times over the years, and I have often wondered what more I could have done to make her life better.
The Arkansas Foodbank is doing something about it. A member of Feeding America and the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, they have been fighting hunger in Arkansas since 1984. What began as an effort by the Arkansas Rice Depot, a gathering of rice farmers who joined together to donate their extra crops to feed hungry neighbors, two years later became a nonprofit organization, the Arkansas Foodbank. Within two years of receiving their nonprofit status, they were distributing 1 million pounds of food to hungry Arkansans annually. In 2016, the Foodbank merged with the Arkansas Rice Depot, a hunger relief organization started by rice farmers who joined together to donate their extra crops to feed hungry neighbors.
The AF’s distribution methods and Food for Kids program have been copied by more than 40 states and Mexico, proving that what they do works. In Arkansas, though, they are tackling a big giant! More than 11,900 volunteers contribute over 33,000 hours each year, helping the Arkansas Foodbank help 33 counties in Central and South Arkansas. If you wonder what serving Arkansas looks like, the Arkansas Foodbank serves 280,000 people representing 87,500 households each year. Last year, they distributed 26.5 million pounds of food, enough for 22 million meals, and through the AF’s partnership with Arkansas rice farmers, they serve more than 1 million pounds of rice to hungry Arkansas families.
“When you take a look at hunger in America, Arkansas is, unfortunately, one of the states at the forefront. Thousands of hardworking Arkansans do not know where they will get their next meal. For more than 264,000 people in our service area, putting food on the table every day is a struggle,” shared Tyler Lindsey, Communications Director at the Arkansas Foodbank. “We are truly a community-supported food bank. Without the support of our volunteers, our fight against hunger would not be possible.”
GIVE WHAT YOU HAVE.
Tina Hillman is a sixth-generation rice farmer. Not just a staple agricultural product of Arkansas, rice is what keeps Carlisle and many East Arkansas communities going. Tina leads the volunteer group at the Carlisle United Methodist Church and has grown the stand-alone food closet into an Arkansas Foodbank Member Agency. Driven by her own struggles in the past, Tina knows what it’s like to go hungry. A single mom, she had to make hard financial decisions with one income and multiple mouths to feed. Her kids never went hungry, but Tina had to skip many meals herself to make that happen. Now she lives in a community where her most of her clients are senior adults. They are hardworking people who now live on fixed Social Security incomes. Tina’s group also delivers meals across the county to homebound clients who cannot come to the Agency themselves.
SERVE WHEN YOU CAN.
Weekly, a group of retired teachers use their spare time to give back. Their consistent commitment to volunteering is something on which the Arkansas Foodbank has come to depend. In the classroom, these teachers have seen firsthand the impact of food insecurity on children and their families. The issues are so much bigger than awkward tummy growls. Kids who come from homes that experience food insecurity also have lower math and reading scores. They miss more days of school, have lower high school graduation rates, and are not as prepared to serve in the workforce as adults. The need sits in front of them nine months out of each year. This motivates the group to show up every Thursday to volunteer.
SHOPPING TO GIVE BACK.
Each year, volunteers sort and package the ingredients used to make food gift packs for the Arkansas Foodbank Gift Shop. Using rice provided by Arkansas rice farmers, these packs include things like soup mixes, rice side dishes, chili, and beans. More than 80 percent of the sales the store makes each year take place during the holiday season. You can also find them at fairs, festivals, and craft shows around the state, or you can order from their website.
With a common theme and a joint mission to “do what they can with what they have,” the Hillmans now work with other rice farmers in their community to see that no one goes hungry. As the holidays approach, all of us can make a difference by simply buying hostess presents, stocking stuffers, office party treats, or just an extra mix or two to keep on hand for an easy dinner.
These efforts make an impact, but there is still a long way to go. But the Arkansas Foodbank and its volunteers relish their commitment to change the statistics of hunger in the state of Arkansas.
What can you do with what you have?
- Volunteer! During the fall months, the AF Gift Shop needs people to sort ingredients and package gift boxes and rice mixes.
- Donate! Donate food items at the Donald W. Reynolds Distribution Center on 65th Street in Little Rock. Fresh produce is especially needed. If you are a farmer or can supply produce to one of the centers, please reach out to the Foodbank.
- Share! If you have a few hours a week, the Arkansas Foodbank welcomes your time and talent. The AF is currently seeking people to help with sales in the gift store during the holiday season.
- Give! Monetary donations can be made online at arkansasfoodbank.org. These gifts will support AF’s 2020 initiative, which includes acquiring a volunteer service center, expanding the delivery fleet, and introducing a software program to track the people they help.