story by Ryan Saylor
Editor's note: Story updated with photos from packing event held in Fort Smith on Friday (Sept. 5).
Food insecurity is a problem that has only grown in severity since the financial crisis of 2008, according to a local food bank executive. Arvest Bank is teaming up with local organizations to reduce the number of hunger in the Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas regions.
Arvest Bank has partnered with the Rice Depot, the Community Services Clearing House and more than a dozen other organizations to collect nonperishable food items at its branch locations across the Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas regions in an effort to fight hunger.
According to Ken Kupchick, director of marketing and development at the River Valley Regional Food Bank in Fort Smith, events that raise awareness of the issue of food insecurity facing our neighbors and friends are needed to bring an end to the crisis.
"The issue of hunger has been on ongoing one and at the height of the recession, it captured the hearts of so many people," he said. "Memories are sometimes short. There is a bit of issue fatigue, so having events like this is really important. Hunger has lagged the recession in terms of impact and is a bigger problem now than in '09 and 2010, so events like this and September being Hunger Action Month, it's very important.”
According to data provided by the River Valley Regional Food Bank, three of the top four counties in the state of Arkansas for food insecurity by total population are Washington County (34,740 people), Benton County (31,160), and Sebastian County (22,640). The only county in the state to outpace the three local counties was Pulaski County with 78,100 people, or 20.4% of its population, facing food insecurity.
When it comes to the number of children facing food insecurity, the top 10 list of overall population includes the four counties from Fort Smith to the Missouri border. Benton County comes in second place with 14,840 children facing food insecurity, followed by Washington County (14,100), Sebastian County (9.440) and Crawford County comes in 10th place with 4,760 children facing food insecurity.
Kupchick said efforts like those at Arvest Bank are part of the solution to fighting hunger. And he said not only does it help local men, women and children get fed, but it also helps the local economy to fight food insecurity.
"By helping people feed their families, we're also helping pay their bills, put gas in the car and take care of themselves," he said. "It means people are more productive and the motor of the economy is fueled. The benefits go far beyond the obvious.”
And while it may seem like a daunting task to raise a million meals as Arvest is attempting to do, figures from the River Valley Regional Food Bank show just how efficiently an individual can be fed.
In Sebastian County alone, providing a meal to someone who is facing food insecurity only costs $2.54 per meal. In Washington County, the figure is only $2.56 while Crawford County's total is $2.66. In Benton County, the average meal is only $2.65.
Kupchick noted figures from the Hunger in America study that showed the food insecurity problem in America is affecting all groups.
Nearly all individuals receiving assistance at food pantries are American citizens, according to the study, while only 1% are homeless. Eight out of 10 are white non-Hispanics and seven out of 10 have at least a high school diploma. Ten percent of those receiving assistance are labeled as having had professional or managerial careers, the study said.
According to Kupchick, events like the Million Meals campaign are what drive awareness of the facts, but locals still may not be aware that those using the shelter are by and large working adults trying to feed their families.
"So many people that we help are employed and working. What used to be an emergency provision due to unexpected medical expenses or short term unemployment … we're now feeding people that are chronically dependent on food pantries to make it month to month. That's the difference we're seeing.”
The Million Meals campaign will kick off Friday (Sept. 5) at the Arvest Bank Tower in Fort Smith at 10 a.m. on the fourth floor. The plan, according to Vice President and Marketing Director Beth Presley is to pack 7,500 meals in one hour during the event. More than 40 Arvest employees gathered at the bank’s main location in Fort Smith on Friday to package 7,500 meals. The employees worked at several “funnel” stations in which ingredients were poured in an orderly fashion through the funnel and into a bag. Once the bag was weighed, it was sealed and then packed into boxes for shipment to the Community Services Clearinghouse. Each bag is capable of producing a meal that will feed six people.
The Arvest Plaza branch on the Fayetteville Square will meet Saturday, Sept. 13, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. in an attempt to pack 10,000 meals. Other branches across Northwest Arkansas will be hosting events, as well. For more information, contact individual branches.