Helping the Hungry Access Fresh Food
November, 2017

 Food banks and pantries have long made it their missions to provide food to people in need. More and more, they are striving to find new approaches to making sure the right foods reach the right people. 

Liz Ivener, retired dietician and director of Helping Neighbors Inter-Faith Food Pantry in Jonesboro, is thrilled that for the past couple of years she’s been able to offer produce from the Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas to the 750 to 800 families who come in for help.

“That’s the one thing a lot of our clients can’t afford,” said Ivener. “They’ll go to food pantries and they’ll get canned goods, but food stamps just don’t go far enough to cover the fresh produce. Of course, as a dietician I’m certainly in favor of fresh fruits and vegetables.”

 “We’ve worked for years with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance on gleaning and getting fresh produce but we are really trying to ramp up our fresh produce the last couple of years,” said Christie Jordan, chief executive officer of the Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas.

The Arkansas Gleaning Project is a partnership between the Arkansas Hunger Alliance and the Society of St. Andrew, and it involves farmers giving volunteers access to go into their fields after their big harvest and pick whatever produce remains, to be donated to food banks across the state.

“In September or October we are on target to exceed 10 million pounds of produce since the program began in 2008,” said Nancy Conley, Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance’s communications director. “We are on track to glean 2 million pounds this year alone.”

The Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas is part of the nationwide Feeding America network, and through it benefits from donations from grocery stores and companies in other states as well as their own.

“We bring produce in by the tractor-trailer load and then sometimes our agencies just pick those things up and provide them as part of their regular distribution,” said Jordan. “Sometimes we do a Just in Time delivery to an organization and that’s all they do, is produce, that particular day.”

The Fresh2You mobile farmers market, created through a pilot partnership between Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, the city of Little Rock, Rock Region Metro and the Blue and You Foundation, also seeks to make produce available to people in food deserts, who might not otherwise be able to get it, and allows them to buy it using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and Double Up Food Bucks, a USDA program that allows them to get twice the value they pay.

The mobile farmers market is set up in an out-of-service Rock Region Metro bus. A non-profit grower puts food on the bus, Conley explains, and someone from Mosaic Church in Little Rock drives it.

Making sure healthy food is available is just a part of the challenge, though. Sometimes making it accessible is a bigger barrier. Sarah Brown, church secretary at Avilla Zion Lutheran Church, runs a food pantry there that serves as many as 165 families on Monday nights. She has taken bags of specially chosen items to homeless people who live in their cars or on the banks of the river. Those people usually don’t have a place to cook or wash dishes, so she stocks easy-to-open cans of Vienna sausages, and provides plastic spoons and napkins.

When the pantry was destroyed by arson last year, the community rallied to make its regular weekly distribution possible on the same day as the fire.

“It was very important for us to have pantry that night so that we would have the last word and not the person who burned our building,” said Brown. “We gave out 93 bags of food that night. Clients had no idea that the church had burned and when they drove up they stood around and held hands and cried for the loss of the little chapel.”

The pantry was moved into two classrooms of the Avilla Christian Academy next door, and an efficient drive-through system has been employed. People go first to the church, where they may attend a short worship session or just get paperwork they can take next door where volunteers load bags of food into their cars.

Because meals are typically shared with others, the Carlisle United Methodist Women run Daily Bread Senior Food Pantry, which serves about 45 seniors monthly, often incorporating a social activity to make meals more palatable. On distribution days, seniors begin lining up at 8 a.m. for a 9 a.m. distribution.

“We serve them breakfast when they come in. On the days they come in we have a sausage ball or a donut and hot coffee – they love the coffee and they sit around and talk, they don’t just get their coffee and leave,” said Tina Hilman.

Hilman started the pantry after noticing an elderly friend she saw at the post office had lost weight. “I learned she didn’t want to cook for herself anymore and the food had gotten so high that she had been going to the dollar store and buying these tiny frozen meals and that’s all she was eating in a day,” said Hilman.

She realized that several seniors can’t drive to grocery stores, carry groceries to their cars or even afford to buy groceries on their limited incomes. She and the other volunteers deliver food to a handful of homebound seniors, and they bag and load groceries into cars for those who arrive at the doors on distribution days.

Helping Neighbors, created by about 25 organizations, all of which pool resources and volunteers, has received several grants from the Arkansas Community Foundation, including a recent one for kids’ packs filled with food to nourish kids through holiday breaks.

“We’ve gotten air conditioners. We got some hardware one time and then we got the software written and then we got some additional hardware another time,” she said.

Ivener has noticed that the sizes of families visiting Helping Neighbors is smaller these days, indicating that more people with children are supporting themselves without help from the pantry. The pantry opens one Tuesday night a month for families, even though it’s no longer required to by the USDA.

 “We had built up a clientele and they needed us to be open when they’re not working,” she said, “so we’re open from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on those nights.” Ivener was expecting a delivery of 10,000 pounds of corn and potatoes on a recent Thursday and planned a distribution of that produce alone.

“We’re going to have it over there under the trees in the parking lot,” she says, adding that she has no doubt they will all be distributed. “By noon there won’t be anything left.”

By Kim Dishongh