By Ethan Nahté
Local businesses, schools and organizations met at Shoe Sensation in Mena on Aug. 4 to collect over 300 backpacks. The backpacks are to be donated to all three school districts within Polk County: Mena, Ouachita River and Cossatot River.
These backpacks are part of the Polk County Backpack Program. They will be given to children who might suffer from food insecurity. The program is designed to provide for hungry children at times when other resources are not available, such as weekends and school vacations. The Mena Lioness Lions Club (MLLC) have supported this initiative since 2013. The MLLC provide the weekly food bags.
Each backpack consists of 12-15 items such as granola bars, ramen noodles, peanut butter/cheese and crackers, animal crackers, cereal bars, applesauce, cheese crackers, snack bars, trail mix, and oatmeal.
Ravan Wagner, AVP of Lending at Union Bank of Mena, said, “The backpacks were made possible by numerous community individuals, Shoe Sensation and a large donation from Nidec. Shoe Sensation has been accepting donations for these bags all summer.
“In the past, children that received a weekly food bag, took it home in a plastic store bag. We feel that the new backpacks will be better for the children not only by being easier to carry, but also provide a little more privacy.”
“[Plastic bags] kind of defeats the purpose,” Robyn Ashworth said of the food being sent home in plastic store bags. She was once a recipient of this program when she was in school. She’s now the store manager at Shoe Sensation in Mena. She said, “This is the first year we’re doing the backpacks. I didn’t realize last year they were sending them home like that.”
Shoe Sensation also had a few backpack donations from individuals they included with the large boxes that were toted out to the bed of a pickup truck. Ashworth stated Nidec donated 283 of the backpacks and the rest were from what the store has collected throughout the summer.
Daniel Wood, controller at Nidec, said, “We felt like we needed to partner with the schools to give back. We’re a large employer in the community. We felt like this was something we could really do to give back and really impact the community. It’s for all the county schools. We’ve partnered with the Lionesses and Shoe Sensation.”
Wagner is also president of MLLC and the Backpack Program coordinator. She said, “When I took the chair position in 2021, I was ordering food for around 250 children. At the end of the school year in 2023 I was ordering for 310.”
According to feedingamerica.org/, in 2021, 3,460 (17.8%) of Polk County residents had food insecurity. The estimated eligibility among food insecure people in Polk County was 42% above the SNAP threshold and 58% below SNAP threshold of 130% poverty. Polk County’s annual food budget shortfall was estimated to be $2,023,000.
The site states: Food insecurity is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as the lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food insecurity is associated with numerous adverse social and health outcomes and is increasingly considered a critical public health issue. Key drivers of food insecurity include unemployment, poverty, and income shocks, which can prevent adequate access to food. Alternatively, multiple interventions have been shown to reduce food insecurity, including participation in food assistance programs and broader societal-level improvements in economic stability.
“The need for the backpacks was realized more this last year,” Wagner said, “as we had almost no middle and high school students taking home food items. We want to make sure that everyone that has a need is covered and want to be discreet as they need us to be.”
“The backpack makes it a little more covert and they can’t be bullied for it,” Ashworth said.
Wagner explained, “The Mena Lioness Lions Club is the sponsor of the Polk County Backpack Program. Each week we send over 300 food insecure children home with food to get them through the weekend. Funding is made possible by donors, and our annual dinner and auction fundraiser. This year we will be having a tailgate party on September 28th and hope to see everyone there.”
It costs $150 to sponsor a child for an entire school year. That’s $16.67 for one month of backpack items for a food insecure child.
For anyone interested in sponsoring a child, you can contact
- any Mena Lioness member;
- drop off your donation at Union Bank;
- mail donations to Mena Lioness Lions, P.O. Box 688, Mena, AR 71953;
- search for Mena Lioness Lions Club on Paypal https://www.paypal.com/fundraiser/charity/4112572/ or use the QR code below.
- You can also call Wagner at 479-234-9222.
MLLC is also having a food party on Thursday, Aug. 10. It is a funnel party made possible by The Pack Shack. MLLC are partnering with volunteers from Mena FFA, Polk County 4-H and the Rotary Club of Polk County/Mena. Their goal is to prepare 15,000 meals for the backpacks in a 4-hour period. All of the meals will be staying in Polk County and sent home with the backpacks over the course of the next year.
“I think [the program] is amazing,” Ashworth said. “Even with it being in a backpack, as a high-schooler, I was very self-conscious and nervous. I didn’t really like it, even though it helped. I couldn’t imagine having to take it home in a [plastic] sack. I’m happy to help get the backpacks for them. I’m happy that we have a community that wants to get the backpacks for them.”
Kelli Lacefield, backup assistant manager at Shoe Sensation, agreed, adding, “This community is very charitable. They’ve donated a lot to us since we’ve opened, like with the Socks 4 Troops and veterans. I feel like if we do any more programs, we’ll keep donating and keep helping our community.”