There are many facilities dedicated to hunger relief across Arkansas, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenge of coordinating food delivery to those in need.
Scott Hamilton, CEO of the Urban League of the State of Arkansas, said his resurgent nonprofit did a lot of research to remain viable in the early months of COVID-19, but a particular niche led to opportunities to make a difference on the food front.
“When COVID broke out last year, we were just like everybody else trying to figure out our way, how do we survive as a nonprofit? But more importantly, what do we do in that space to make sure that our citizens in our community are able to deal with and navigate through this space that none of us have ever been in?” Hamilton tells Talk Business & Politics.
“We began to start looking at what types of impacts that COVID was exacerbating in areas that people were already having challenges in. And I’ll tell you food insecurity really started to rise up the top,” he said.
Hamilton said it was clear the coronavirus was impacting and would continue to impact the food network to people in need. With schools closing, soup kitchens shuttering, and the economy being hobbled, the Urban League searched for a way to plug in.
“Schools kids being out of school and not being able to access free and reduced lunches or the after-school programs – that really concerned us,” he recalled.
The Urban League of the State of Arkansas is dedicated to equity and equality specifically involving issues related to health, education, housing, jobs and employment, and social justice.
Not wanting to create a new network or reinvent the proverbial wheel, Hamilton said leadership in his organization put together a plan to fill a gap in coordinating different groups in the food ecosystem to deliver meals to those in need. The Department of Human Services liked the plan and assisted with $450,000 in CARES Act funding.
“We’ve got great networks of food banks, we’ve got the Hunger Relief Alliance. We’ve got systems that are there, but we started seeing some struggle because people couldn’t really get to food banks,” he said.
Like Amazon delivering goods from the wholesale level to the final mile, the Urban League pulled resources together to streamline a system for food delivery that Hamilton thinks could be a blueprint for statewide implementation.
“Locally, we saw a lot of out of work chefs, caterers, restaurant operators. These folks were out of work because of the pandemic. We realized that at the State Fair, that there was a lot of commercial kitchen access, a lot of space where we could be very COVID aware in terms of our operation. We partnered with the State Fair, and we have a full-blown daily, almost around-the-clock group of chefs that are just cooking food. We’re getting the food from our food bank networks… And then we’ve got teams of folks that are taking that cooked food, they’re packaging it in single plate meals, and wrapping it,” Hamilton said.
“We’re then loading them into refrigerated trucks and moving them around the state to different communities. We’ve targeted low-income housing facilities, senior facilities, veterans facilities initially, just because that logistically has helped us,” he added.
Hamilton said the group is currently serving 45 counties in Arkansas, but sees the potential to take the concept further.
“We think it can. And what we’d like to do from that is begin to see if we could replicate a similar model out into our counties, out into our smaller communities. Can we find a shuttered school or a restaurant that has a commercial kitchen? Can we then identify people that are trained, skilled at preparing meals? And then begin to set up operations in more of a localized manner, where folks could prepare meals in communities that they’re going to serve directly. If we can figure out a way then to get the commodity food to them, then it becomes a lot easier to get food into as we say to bellies of those that need it,” Hamilton said.
You can view his interview in the video below.