One in four children face food insecurity in Arkansas, and in some of our rural counties, that rate is as high as one in three. Children need nutritious food to grow and thrive, and they need it every day. Unfortunately, over 87,000 children in Central and South Arkansas are food insecure, meaning they aren’t sure when or where their next meal will come from.
At the Arkansas Foodbank, we are committed to exploring ways to create seamless access to nutritious food for children who face hunger. We are working to answer questions such as: If a child is food insecure, how often do they have nutritious snacks or meals when they are not in school? How can we make sure children have access to nutritious food at night, on weekends, holidays and during the summer? When parents are forced to choose between basic needs with a very limited amount of money, sometimes a meal doesn’t make the cut.
As we researched the answers to our questions, four strategies emerged that clearly met the criteria: backpacks, school pantries, afterschool snack and meal programs, and summer feeding.
- Backpack Program: In 1994, Arkansas Rice Depot launched the Backpack program, sending hungry children home with backpacks filled with food every weekend. After the Foodbank’s 2016 merger with Rice Depot, the Foodbank has continued the backpack program, serving 6,909 kids in 116 schools last year.
- School Pantries: School Pantries are readily accessible sources of food assistance for low-income children aged 0-18 and their families. School pantries operate much like other food pantries, with the exception that the pantry only serves school children and their families. Sites are either located on a school’s campus or close by, have set distribution schedules and offer ongoing food assistance services. Last year our nine school pantries served 1,607 households including 6,608 individuals.
- After School Snack & Meals Programs: Afterschool snack and meal programs operate in local nonprofit organizations and churches. Many children come to these programs at the end of the school day and participate in tutoring, athletic and creative programs and are served a nutritious snack and/or meal. For many children in these programs, this is “supper” and will be the last food they have until breakfast at school the next morning.
- Summer Feeding Program: Summer feeding provides crucial nutrition during the time school is not in session and children lose access to free meals at the school cafeteria. Most sites provide breakfast, lunch and possibly a late-day meal. All sites are “open” meaning the children do not have to be enrolled in a program and can show up at meal time and be fed.
The impact of childhood hunger is immediate and long-term. But with community-wide support and programs that seek to reach children in their respective places—whether at home during the weekend, after school or through the summer—together we can ensure children have access to healthy and nutritious food all year round. When children receive the food they need to grow and thrive as individuals, they perform better in school, have improved emotional and physical development and ultimately focus on themselves and their community—not their stomachs.