BY MELANIE BUCK –
Brandi Johnston of Arkansas Rice Depot visited the Mena Lions Club on Friday, October 30, to bring more awareness to the issue of hunger in Arkansas. Arkansas ranks number two in the nation when it comes to children facing hunger issues. One in four children in the state don’t eat on a regular basis; in some areas, it’s one in three. Through the programs of Arkansas Rice Depot, everyone can help to cure this issue.
This is a stark contrast to the fact that Arkansas has the highest obesity rate and is one of the ‘food richest’ states in the nation, being the leading producer of both rice and poultry in the country. “We are one of very few states in the nation, that if our borders were to close, we would be fine, we would be self sufficient,” said Johnston.
Johnston also explained that one hundred schools in the state fit the 90th percentile or above category when it comes to poverty. “We are first in the nation for obesity and the way that our world is structured, cheap food is not nutritious food and people living below poverty do not have access to good food,” said Johnston.
Johnston explained that it has been proven that children who suffer from hunger also suffer in school, with class work and interaction with other students and teachers. “A hungry child can’t learn. They lack social skills, they get withdrawn, and have behavior problems, it makes them cranky, and they act out. Hunger is not the only solution to poverty but it’s an important part of that,” said Johnston.
In fact, that’s how Rice Depot started their food programs. In 1994, a school nurse in Little Rock called the Arkansas Rice Depot and told of children coming to her office complaining of headaches, tummy aches and other health problems. She soon realized that their problems were caused by having little or no food to eat at home.
This is where Rice Depot does its best to step in and help curve the stats with programs such as Food for Families Pantries and the Backpack Program. What began as rice farmers donating sacks of rice, has turned into a statewide program that has been the example for many other programs across the country, and also internationally. Arkansas’ Food for Kids has fed over 35,000 children throughout the state. “We are just Arkansans feeding Arkansans,” said Johnston. In conjunction with other donors, Rice Depot fills pantries and/or implements the Backpack Program in 64 of the 75 counties in Arkansas.
Polk County is one such place where the Backpack Program is in full bloom, thanks to organizations like the Mena Lioness Lions who head up fundraising for the program in the county. “Polk County is a model example. You all raise funds that allow the program to continue,” said Johnston. She continued, “When we began making cuts, we looked at districts and counties where the community is involved and had already raised funds and said, ‘we need to stay there.’”
Programs such as the Backpack Program give children some of the nutrition needed to curb the issues related to hunger. “We forget what a privilege it is to have funds to go to the grocery store and buy food,” said Lioness Patty Young. Through the Backpack Program, children are able to take a backpack of ‘kid-friendly, ready-to-eat or simple-to-prepare’ food home with them from school each week to give them something to eat on the weekends while away from school. Not only does it give the student food to eat, they also have food for younger siblings that have not reached school age. Most of the kids they serve get free or reduced lunches at school, but the struggle comes on the weekends, and over holiday breaks. “Most kids get really excited about breaks from school but for the kids on our program, that’s a very troubling thought, that they’re not going to get regular food. The backpacks and meal kits fill that need.”
Rice Depot has come up with a new strategy, a pilot program, to bring efficiency to the program as a whole. “We asked ourselves, ‘how can we meet 60% of a child’s nutritional needs over the weekend,’ and we developed a new program,” Johnston explained. One of the struggles was not just having enough food, but the right nutritional food. “You can’t put fresh food in a backpack; you are getting convenience food and it typically is high in sodium that is not just the best nutritional food, and it’s expensive,” Johnston said. With the pilot program, meal kits will be implemented that will include two shelf-stable white milk boxes, one shelf-stable chocolate milk, two fruit cups, two Honey-O’s cereals, one sun butter cup (a spread that is much like sun butter peanut butter only not made from nuts), two graham crackers, one beef stew, one beef ravioli, two granola bars, one box of razzles (sour covered raisins with extra vitamins), and two packs of sunflower seeds. Each meal kit costs $6 and it meets 60% of a child’s nutritional needs for a weekend. It also allows Rice Depot to buy in bulk and cuts costs. By January, they will have launched the program into 25 pilot schools and hope to implement the program in all of the schools they serve by next fall.
The program not only needs monetary donations, they also have more than 6,000 volunteers from across the state that helped with the program last year. These volunteers spend their time packing and delivering all across Arkansas. At each school, local volunteers spend each Friday packing backpacks for the students to pick up on their way out. Sometimes the process takes hours, especially for schools that serve up to 90 students each week.
To fully implement the Backpack Program into a school, it costs $3,000 per semester per school. That’s $6,000 per year, and with Polk County having a total of eight schools, that equals $48,000 in just Polk County. Last year, the Mena Lioness Lions were able to raise more than $14,000 with help from many area businesses and individuals. The Lioness’ next goal is to raise $20,000 by December 31. So far, they have raised $7,483; a $2500 donation from Union Bank, $3000 from The Lioness annual auction, $500 Nidec, and the remainder from community donors. “We actually took $500 out of our funds to give to the Pack Shack that the local 4-H clubs held recently. They gave us 2,000 meals to distribute in our schools,” said Young.
“Polk County would have lost the support from Rice Depot without the funding that was raised locally,” said Paulette Sherrer, Federal Coordinator for Mena Public Schools. If you would like to help, there are several ways. “Write a check, hold a business or church fundraiser, donate food, spread the word, and hold food drives,” said Young. Donations can be given to the program as a whole or they can be used for a specific school within the county, whichever the donor chooses. For more information on the Backpack Program or if you would like to conduct a food drive for the program, contact Patty Young at 479-394-2211 or any Lioness member.
“You are giving a voice to the voiceless by helping. If you care about kids and care about making your community better, we need to get these kids educated because the hope is that we can get them out of this cycle of poverty and that will make a brighter future for all of us,” said Johnston.