Leader Blues

Thursday, August 28, 2008

TOP STORY > >Rice Depot to distribute packages to local schools

Leader staff writer

Arkansas Rice Depot is helping alleviate child hunger with its Food for Kids program. The program is specifically for kids who live in households where adequate, regular meals are an uncertainty and the problem is not being addressed by charity relief via a food pantry.

On Thursday, Food for Kids will deliver backpacks of food to dozens of students at Cabot schools who might otherwise go hungry.

Each child gets to take home a backpack of kid-friendly, ready-to-eat food items that he or she can open up and eat with no preparation.

Now, a new program, Adopt a School, makes it possible for individuals, families, church groups, businesses, and civic organizations to get involved in Food for Kids. With a $2,000 donation, an average of 40 children at a school will be assured of receiving backpacks of food regularly throughout the school year.

During the 2006-07 school year Food for Kids provided food to 22,700 children in 550 schools in Arkansas, including five schools in Cabot, one in Lonoke and five in the greater Jacksonville area.

The rising prices of gasoline and food are being felt by everyone, but Americans already living on the margin are being hit the hardest.

For the poor, skimping on meals has always been a strategy for stretching limited resources. It is all-too-common in this land of plenty.

In 2006, about 11 percent of all U.S. households resorted to cutting back on meals to economize, and about 25 million families sought emergency food relief. And that was before the recent spikes in prices.

For the children who must deal daily with not having enough food or proper nutrition, the effects on health can be profound.

Severe hunger endangers kids’ health in several ways – they are more likely to fail to thrive physically, have a chronic illness, experience anxiety and depression, develop behavior problems, and perform poorly at school.

In Arkansas, 18 of every 100 children cope with not having sufficient food and frequently go to bed hungry, according to a 2007 report from America’s Second Harvest, a national food bank network.

More than 14,000 children statewide face long-term food needs, according to an Arkansas Rice Depot survey. In one year, from 2006 to 2007, that number jumped more than 40 percent.

A variety of family situations can contribute to child hunger besides poverty – a parent or guardian who is physically or mentally ill, disabled, or suffering from drug or alcohol addiction.

A grandparent may be raising the child and may not be able to prepare adequate meals, or the family may live in an area without a food pantry where they can get assistance.

Some children served by the Food for Kids program have come from unimaginably dire living situations – living in a car, a rent-by-week motel with no cooking facilities, a camper, a house without utilities or a tent, says Laura Rhea, president and CEO of the Arkansas Rice Depot.

“It is hard to sleep at night when you know there are kids living lives of desperation.”

Food pantries served by Arkansas Rice Depot are seeing a sharp rise in the numbers of families seeking emergency food relief, with a 9 percent increase in the first quarter of 2008, to a total of 136,538 individuals served. Arkansas Rice Depot distributes more than 5 million pounds of food annually through 300 soup kitchens and food pantries statewide.

“The second quarter probably is going to show an even greater increase,” says Rhea. “We all look at the gas pump and food prices and for some of us, it may be a small thing, but the poor don’t have the resources to deal with it. Low-income people in Arkansas are really struggling.”

Rhea says the clientele served by food pantries has changed in recent months.

“There has been an increase in the number of working families needing food assistance,” she said. “People going to work every day and doing everything right still don’t have enough to make ends meet. That is heartbreaking.”

Nationally, about 37 percent of all persons who sought emergency food relief in 2006 were employed, according to a U.S. Mayors Conference report. Medical bills, unemployment, housing costs, and lack of income were the most common reasons given for seeking assistance.

The rise in gas prices is also having a financial impact on the Arkansas Rice Depot. In the first six months of this year, fuel expenses for the organization’s delivery trucks and vans went over budget by 20 percent.

For the entire year, $85,000 had been budgeted based on projected gas prices, but $51,192 had been spent by the end of June.

Food supplies are running a little low too, says Rhea, partly due to the many calls for disaster relief this year, but “we are doing pretty good,” Rhea said. “Food is low, but it is low all over. Partly it is the summer slump, but there is increased need everywhere.”

Floods, plant closings, and other events can swiftly devastate families and entire communities, which then turn to organizations like the Arkansas Rice Depot for help.

When a Cargill plant in Boone County burned, 800 people were out of work and in no time needed emergency assistance, Rhea said.

When Arkansas Rice Depot began trucking in loads of food and other supplies, it found that three other businesses in the community had also closed, leaving more folks struggling to make ends meet.

With schools starting back, Rhea anticipates a surge in calls from school administrators, teachers and school nurses who have identified students who could benefit from Food for Kids. And the demand on food pantries is not likely to abate.

But she is optimistic that the need will be met.

“Arkansas Rice Depot is a faith-based organization, and we have been doing a lot of praying,” she said.

“And Arkansans are the most giving, caring people in the nation. They know that if they were out of work, it would take only a few paydays before they’d have to get help. Arkansas is not a rich state, but it tops the list in generosity, in helping the less fortunate, in what each individual is willing to give,” Rhea said.