Northwest Arkansas organizations work together to stem hunger.
Hunger relief in Northwest Arkansas involves more than the work of one individual, nonprofit group or corporation. It takes many parts pulling together for a common goal.
Take Jessica McClard, a married mother of two who started the Little Free Pantry a little more than a year ago in Fayetteville. She was inspired by the idea the little free library in her neighborhood seemed to carve out space to connect neighbors while also promoting literacy. McClard thought the concept could be used in another way.
The Little Free Pantry, installed at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, allows anyone to leave canned carrots, peaches, tuna and boxes of pasta for others to take as needed. The idea has spread to other communities, where individuals and organizations
independently have put up a “Blessing Box,” a “Community Food Box” and a “Red Door Pantry.”
In steps Tyson Foods. The company recently named McClard a Tyson Foods Meals that Matter Hunger Hero and awarded her $10,000 of nonperishable stock for the pantry and $40,000 for the development of a website to map little pantries popping up in the region and elsewhere.
“There is some conversation about whether or not charity or nonprofit church work can take care of people on their own. Absolutely not,” McClard said. “It’s going to take all of us.”
The nation’s 42.2 million people who experienced hunger in 2015 included 67,500 residents in Benton, Carroll, Madison and Washington counties, according to estimates from Feeding America.
McClard made sure she got her tickets early to see a national touring exhibit on the Fayetteville Square through Wednesday. It moves to the Clinton School of Public Service from Saturday through July 31.
The exhibit, “This is Hunger,” is sponsored by MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and is in town during the Native Youth in Food and Agriculture Summer Leadership Summit. The summit was organized by the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law. MAZON is a national advocacy organization with a goal of ending hunger among all people in the United States and Israel.
Leaders of MAZON and Janie Simms Hipp, director of the university initiative, have worked together for a few years because of a shared interest in the problem of hunger, she said. Hipp’s program is concerned with food policy and food access, particularly for the 567 federally recognized American Indian tribes, Alaska natives and Hawaiian natives in the United States. MAZON officials offered to bring the tour here as part of the summit.
The exhibit presents a 45-minute program of portraits of dozens of Americans who share their stories of struggling with hunger.
HUNGER IN NORTHWEST ARKANSAS
Feeding America estimated 18.4 percent of Arkansas residents lacked enough food in 2015. Local estimates were: Washington County, 15.3 percent; Madison County, 15.2 percent; Carroll County, 13.5 percent; and Benton County, 11.9 percent.
Feeding America is a nationwide nonprofit network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries.
Mary Mann, Samaritan Community Center spokeswoman, said the center’s cafes in Springdale and Rogers draw different demographics.
In Springdale, visitors to the cafe, food market and shops include generations of families who are in poverty.
In Rogers, Samaritan Community Center programs tend to draw older residents living on fixed incomes and the working poor, she said.
Social workers on staff work with families, Mann said. If a parent who appears able to work comes to the market repeatedly, the staff will review the client file. If a person has been out of work for six months and appears to have trouble finding a job, the person is referred to a social worker for help.
“We’re there to constantly take care of those who fall through the cracks,” Mann said. “Many are children.”
Mann was raised by parents who believed in working hard, but she now recognizes that some families have a different attitude and can be resigned to living a certain way, she said. They may be hurt or disabled and can’t think of a way out, she said.
“We feel we are called to be hope to many people,” she said.
MEETING THE NEED
Corporations and individuals have responded to the need for food.
Arvest Bank last month concluded its annual 1 Million Meals campaign against hunger in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Donations from the bank, employees, customers and community members yielded 1.88 million meals, according to the company. The campaign generated 814,428 meals for 29 organizations in Northwest Arkansas and the Fort Smith area.
Recipients have posted their checks from the campaign on social media for the past few weeks.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and its foundation gave $1.6 million from Feb. 1, 2016, to Jan. 31 to hunger relief organizations in Northwest Arkansas, spokesman Aaron Mullins said. Walmart stores also donated more than 4 million pounds of food locally.
The company and foundation are working toward greater access to hunger relief and health eating services, he said. The company is interested in programs that systematically connect people to healthy food and in encouraging nonprofit groups to work together to meet the region’s long-term needs.
“Wal-Mart and the Walmart Foundation has a long-standing commitment to hunger relief and a dedication to ensuring every family in Northwest Arkansas has access to affordable, healthier and sustainably grown food,” Erin Hogue, senior manager for Northwest Arkansas giving, said in a statement provided by Mullins. “We are committed to using our strengths as a retailer to make a real difference for families who are struggling with hunger.”
The company works closely with the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, as does Tyson Foods. Tyson gave 1.3 million pounds of protein with a value of $1.8 million to the food bank from October through June, company spokesman Derek Burleson said.
The company has named four people since January 2016 as Tyson Foods Meals that Matter Hunger Heroes, including McClard. The company has pledged to invest $50 million in cash and donations by 2020 to fight hunger.
McClard has watched her pantry idea grow to four locations in Fayetteville and at rural Washington County high schools. Seven pantries are in Springdale, two in Rogers and a few in Bentonville, McClard said.
She was already involved in a women’s organization for helping neighbors, had an interest in social justice and poverty, and was struck by the hunger statistics for Northwest Arkansas.
“It’s such a nice place to live,” she said. “There is a lot of hidden need here.”
She keeps an eye on the pantry at Good Shepherd, but the others are managed independently.
A NATIONAL ISSUE
The national hunger rate was 13.4 percent in 2015, according to estimates from Feeding America. Of those, 55 percent would qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps.
About 18 percent of those households earn from 130 percent to 185 percent above the federal poverty guideline, and 26 percent of households lacking enough food earned an income at 185 percent or more above the poverty guideline.
Hipp said her interest in the issue stems from the high rates of hunger in tribal communities. Most are in “food deserts” because they do not have grocery or convenience stores within a 10- to 20-mile radius, she said. Tribes are focusing more attention on access to food and eating healthy, she said.
Their focus applies to all communities, Hipp said.
“Every community needs to grapple with these issues,” Hipp said. “If we are not feeding each other, who are we?”
Some families who lack enough food do not qualify for federal assistance, according to Feeding America. Reasons families experience hunger include poverty, unemployment and a lack of housing. Feeding America supports charities and government assistance programs, according to its website.
Every community includes residents who are disabled or home-bound, children and working adults who don’t earn enough to feed their families, Hipp said. She is concerned about proposed cuts to federal feeding programs at a time when significant numbers of people still need that help, she said. President Donald Trump has proposed cuts to food stamps.
“We’re always going to need and have needed a federal government approach to having a comprehensive policy for helping the country feed itself,” she said.
A group of students looks at an exhibit on hunger Saturday at the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market. The exhibit is from MAZON, a national advocacy organization inspired by Jewish values and ideals that is working to end hunger across the United States and Israel. The exhibit is housed inside a 53-foot-long big rig and is designed as a 45-minute experience for 30 guests at a time. The exhibit will be at the Fayetteville square through Wednesday. Visitors need to make a reservation through the website thisishunger.org.