story and photos by Kim Souza
Northwest Arkansas is often considered the land of plenty, but local charities like the Samaritan Community Center, the Jones Center for Families or the Boys and Girls Clubs of Benton County tell a different story.
It's a dichotomy — kids who are overweight also face food insecurity in two of the wealthiest per capita counties in the state.
• 1 in 3 Arkansas school students are over weight;
• 31% of the state’s adolescent children participate in physical education; and
• 25% of the vegetables eaten by children are potato chips and french fries.
But that’s just part of the story, according to Jacob Hutson, executive director for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Benton County. He said children of today are the first generation in 200 years to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
Hutson was one of six representatives attending the 2014 grant award ceremony held by General Mills on Wednesday (Jan. 15) in Rogers. The local sales office for the Minneapolis-based food giant doled out $240,000 to help six local charities fund nutrition and wellness programs this year. The annual grants totaling more a half billion have been part of the General Mills Foundation for the past 60 years. The individual grants have expanded 10-fold over the past three years from a total of $100,000 in 2012 to $1 million in 2014.
This year the foundation granted 25 community awards across the country, and members of the Northwest Arkansas General Mills sales teams nominated six local non-profits as worthy grant recipients, each received a check for $40,000, twice the amount awarded to them in the 2013 program.
• The Jones Center for Families
• The Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter
• The Boys and Girls Club of Benton County
• Arkansas Athlete’s Outreach
• The Samaritan Community Center
• Mercy Hospital YMCA
Ian Shell, a financial analysts with General Mills, said each of the local recipients were nominated by an employee and then placed in a selection process. He said the organizations were chosen based on the scope and impact of the services they provide in helping improve nutrition or alleviating hunger. This criteria aligns with the missions of General Mills and its foundation.
Brad Freiss, executive director for Arkansas Athlete’s Outreach, said his organization will use the funds to establish an academy program that focuses on five areas of development: skills, fitness, nutrition, character and leadership. He said the funds will go toward nutrition and physical training specialists as well as fitness equipment. Last year AAO said it used the $20,000 grant to fund a nutrition program geared to the parents of the some 600 local youth they reach annually.
Hutson accepted the funds for the boys and girls clubs in Benton County and plans to new introduce a new cooking curriculum at the centers where kids can learn to plan, shop and prepared healthy meals.
Matt Young, principal at Cooper Elementary in Bella Vista, accepted the grant in conjunction with Mercy YMCA who plans to build a fitness trail between the school and the new Mercy Clinic in Bella Vista. This grant will also help support a community garden on the clinic campus that is worked by the Cooper students as part of an outdoor classroom.
“We all know how intense peer pressure can be, but let me tell you kid pressure is worse. Kids can talk their parents into plenty of bad habits like fast food dinner on the run. But wouldn’t it be great if kids could talk parents into taking them to a fun, fitness trail, right in the local community, that’s our goal with this project,” Young said.
Kelly Kemp, advancement officer for the Jones Center for Families, thanked General Mills for the $40,000 grant which she said will go into hungry boys and girls who attend Camp War Eagle at the Jones Center this summer. It’s a 10-week day camp where children learn to garden, craft and get plenty of exercise.
“We provide a healthy breakfast snack and a full hot lunch for the campers and we couldn’t do it without the support of strategic partners like General Mills,” Kemp said. “The hot lunches have also helped with attendance and increased the children’s level of afternoon activity. We served about 1,000 kids last summer and hope to expand that number this year.”
The Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter provided a safe haven for 560 children last year who were removed from their homes by the state.
“We served 50,000 meals and 30,000 snacks in a year’s time but the state only provides about 25% of the non-profit’s budget. We couldn’t do it without the partners like General Mills and the Walmart Foundation who help with funding and supply countless volunteers throughout the year,” said Steve Schotta, executive director the shelter.
He said the shelter hopes to use some of the money to provide some fitness training and potential ropes course option for the shelter residents.
Perhaps the recipient with the biggest need among the six is the Samaritan Community Center and its “snackpack for kids” program that will soon hand out its one millionth weekend backpack to a local child facing food insecurity.
“The need is huge and we are barely scratching the surface. Last Friday we handed out 6,803 backpacks to local students who might not any other food to eat before Monday,” Rambo said.
The weekly average has grown to 6,600 this year, from 5,500 a year ago and Rambo said it’s up to the schools to subscribe and more than 95 are taking part.
One of the biggest challenges Rambo faces in the sure volume of snacks she needs each week. Last year, the Samaritan Community Center received $20,000, which Rambo estimated would provide 11,500 snackpacks. This year’s grant will double that amount. Each child gets between 8 to 10 snacks to take home with them every Friday. Rambo said finding the healthier snacks is a constant challenge. She has been in contact with manufacturers about formulating a special snack with higher protein levels for this program.
Rambo said the volume of food being handed out each week has gotten to the point that she is ordering directly from the manufacturer in some cases, which also gets her better pricing.