BY MELANIE BUCK –
The Mena Lioness Lions Club welcomed Brandi Johnston of Arkansas Rice Depot as guest speaker for their February meeting. Johnston is the Director of Development for Arkansas Rice Depot and not only informed the Lioness’ about changes in the program, but also praised the ladies for the amount of support given to the Food for Kids Backpack Program in Polk County.
In 2014, the Lioness organization, along with various county businesses and individuals, donated $13,850 to the Depot for the 2015-2016 year. Last year, they were able to feed more than 200 children within Polk County’s schools through the program. Johnston explained that without the support of people and organizations such as the Lioness Club, the Backpack Program would not exist. “I tell people all the time about the Lioness Club in Mena. They have built a great program,” said Johnston.
Johnston also gave the eye-opening statistic that Arkansas is second in the nation when it comes to hungry kids. Nearly 20 percent of children in Arkansas go hungry on a regular basis. She 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. 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.
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.
The statewide program has been the example for many other programs across the country, and most recently in Mexico. Arkansas’ Food for Kids has fed over 35,000 kids throughout the state. “We are just Arkansans feeding Arkansans,” said Johnston.
While the state-wide program has expanded in some areas and cut back in others, the Backpack Program in Polk County is sure to remain, at least through next year, only because of the great effort made by the Mena Lioness Lions Club and their supporters. Young, who heads up the program within Mena Lioness, explained that not only have they received monetary support from the community, but they have also had food donated. Young praised the Mena Area Board of Realtors for their part in the program. In fact, Young said the idea for the partnership between the Lioness and Rice Depot grew from a program that the Board of Realtors had begun, a program that involved giving children food in backpacks. “The Board of Realtors is critical to the program because they continuously collect food items and also purchase items to supplement what we get from the Rice Depot,” explained Young.
Young said that although the food brought in from the Rice Depot monthly is quite a load, it still is not enough. She also said that at least one school, Wickes Elementary, holds a food drive twice a year to help supplement their backpacks.
In order to continue to keep the program going beyond next year, the Lioness Club will need community support to help cover the cost of the three county districts that encompass eight schools on four campuses. It costs $3,000 to sponsor a school for a semester. “We still need a village to get this done and help these children,” Young said.
All schools have reported seeing a difference in the lives of the children who are recipients of the program. Comments from school officials on the program shared with Young include:
‘They [students] have a better outlook and are excited when they get something they have not received before. They are great kids and show respect and appreciation for the food items.’
‘This program is another way for me to get to know the at-risk kids and their needs. I have had several mothers tell me they appreciated the program.’
‘When we hear of a family that is struggling, lost their job, or more, we move quickly to reach out to them to see if they need our assistance. This year alone we had 2 separate families that both parents lost their jobs within the same week.’
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. “We’re never going to feed all of these kids with just one program. Food drives are very important.” For more information on the Food for Kids 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.