One of the most surprising statistics for many to digest about the booming Northwest Arkansas economy is the number of children and adolescents who are at risk for hunger — one in four locally, compared to one in six people across the nation, according to local hunger relief advocates.
Harps Foods, the Care Foundation and Bank of America have committed $160,000 to fund a new Mini Meal program for middle school children that is administered by the Samaritan Community Center. This non-profit already feeds more than 6,500 elementary school children each week in 95 different schools across the two county area through the “SnackPacks for Kids” program.
On Wednesday (Sept. 17) Debbie Rambo, founder of the SnackPacks for Kids program, said the demand for weekend food packs for middle school children is a need in the community going unmet.
“A few months ago Roger Collins, CEO of Harps Foods, contacted us about wanting to help with hunger relief. We mentioned this gap in the service that middle school children face when they age out of the SnackPack program. He then engaged the Care Foundation and together we have been able to extend weekend food mini meals to older children at Springdale’s middle schools,” Rambo said.
Harps committed $60,000 over three years. The Care Foundation, in which Collins is a board member, contributed $90,000 over three years, and Bank of America’s local foundation added $10,000, with $10,000 from a local family foundation which Rambo said helps this program with sustainability and opportunities to expand as more needs are accessed.
The Samaritan Community Center now projects its one year budget for the Mini Meal program will be $41,381.Total operating expense for the first five years of the program is estimated at $454,137.
The middle school Mini Meal program reaches roughly 400 adolescents in Springdale, but plans are to expand the program as needed with additional capital contributions.
“I found it hard to believe that so many children in this somewhat affluent area do not have enough food to eat. We at Harps wanted to help change that and fill the gap, that’s why we are involved in this Mini Meal program,” Collins said.
The cost per mini meal pack is $3.65 and it includes a six-meal rice and soy protein pack courtesy of the Pack Shack, two oatmeal packs, two Wow Butter packs, a large box of wheat pasta, a small can of tomato sauce and two bags of dried fruit in a kid-friendly package.
“We have worked really hard with a nutritionist and Brett Raymond of Pack Shack to provide more better-for-you snacks, more protein rich which stays in the belly longer,” said Bonnie Faitak, program director for SnackPacks and Mini Meals.
She said the weekend mini meal bags now cost the non-profit $2.40 each because the Pack Shack has donated the 6-meal rice and soy protein packs.
“We are ordering the Wow Butter from Canada directly from the distributor and it’s the first time we have had a peanut butter substitute. Even though peanut butter is an inexpensive form of protein we can’t use it because of allergies,” Faitak said.
The Mini Meal packs involve some cooking with added water, a process most middle schoolers can handle, especially with a microwave, Rambo added.
Danielle Henderson, a counselor at Helen Tyson Middle School, said the expansion of weekend food packs for middle school children is sorely needed. The first packs were handed out last weekend and Henderson said distribution went without hitch. However, she said the school is trying to identify all the kids in need, because it’s not always obvious on the surface.
Anita Scism president of the Care Foundation, issued a challenge to all who can help to do so, whether that’s volunteering to pack the Mini Meal bags, deliver them to schools or donate to their costs.
“We all need to do our part to bring awareness and investment to this local cause,” Scism said.
Larry Manry, market manager for Bank of America, said he’s been a believer and supporter of the SnackPacks for Kids program from the early years and has watched that program grow exponentially. He added that he was so blown away by Rambo’s determination that SnackPacks and Mini Meals are the local foundation’s largest grant recipient at $10,000.
“You can not discount passion,” Manry said.
At Risk for Hunger
Benton County – 14,550
Washington County – 14,030
Madison County – 1060
Source: Feeding America