Ken Kupchick was struggling in mid-2011 to come up with a clever but pointed press release that would put into perspective the growing number of people in the Fort Smith area needing food assistance.
“I knew I needed to demonstrate in some way the magnitude of the problem,” said Kupchick, director of marketing and development for the River Valley Regional Food Bank (RVRFB). “So, I created a graph of sandwiches served, then I thought, ‘What happens if I overlay an unemployment chart on the graphic?’”
He stumbled upon the Baloney Sandwich Index.
“It was an accident. … I can’t say I’m some great thinker, but it made the point and it made that (growing amount of food assistance) more relevant,” he explained.
Kupchick uses three numbers to compute the BSI: the number of sack lunches served by the St. John’s Episcopal Church sack lunch program, the Sebastian County jobless rate and the Fort Smith metro jobless rate. The index has roughly a 70% correlation with Sebastian County unemployment numbers and a 68% correlation rate with the Fort Smith metro unemployment rate.
The first Baloney Sandwich Index was released in November 2011. November 2012 marked a record for the month in terms of lunches served by St. John’s. During the month, the church served 5,180 lunches, more than 78% higher than the 2,908 lunches served during November 2008.
It’s obvious to Kupchick that persistently high unemployment and underemployment in the Fort Smith area are causing the increased need. In 2008, the RVRFB pushed out about 3.8 million pounds to area food charities and churches. The amount grew to 6.5 million pounds distributed in 2012, with Kupchick estimating the need for food as high as 11 million pounds. Kupchick said the RVRFB provides food to groups in an eight-county region (Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Logan, Polk, Scott, Sebastian and Yell counties). There are roughly 53,000 people in need in the region, and that number swells to 63,000 if including adjacent Oklahoma counties.
“There are so many legitimate stories of need out there,” Kupchick said, adding that a lack of food results in a lack of proper nutrition which often results in poor educational attainment and health problems. “Food is politics and food is business and we’re at the intersection of both. … We have to see that it’s in the best interests of the state and these other governments to focus on nutrition.”
The economy may be getting better, but poverty and food insecurity can lag long after an economic recovery. And this so-called “jobless recovery” doesn’t help.
“More people are becoming employed, but into what? … I think we are seeing many who are moving into underemployment. There are more going to jobs with wages that can’t support a household,” Kupchick said.
Indeed, the jobs picture is tough. Economic conditions in the Fort Smith metro area worsened in December, with the workforce shrinking by more than 1,800 and the number of employed shrinking by more than 1,000 compared to December 2011.
The unemployment rate for the region rose to 8.1% in December, up from 7.6% in November, but below the 8.5% in December 2011. December was the 48th consecutive month the metro jobless rate has been at or above 7%. It was also the sixth month during 2012 that the jobless rate was at or above 8%.
Such numbers are possible factors driving a demographic change among those needing food assistance, Kupchick said. He’s seeing more senior citizens who find it difficult to stretch their Social Security or disability dollars.
“And some of these seniors are receiving no help from their families. That’s what breaks my heart,” Kupchick said.
In addition to seniors, more Asians and Hispanics are seeking assistance. That’s a big sign, according to Kupchick, because the two ethnic groups are often too proud to seek help outside their cultural support networks.
“But now we are seeing them come forward. … That tells me how deep this is,” he said.
Just providing enough food to help a family eat for one week can be a huge financial relief.
“Now they can pay their rent, put gas in their car,” Kupchick said. “Anybody who has a house for rent in this town should support these nutrition programs.”