Arkansas’ children are hungry – and the proof lies in the number of school districts developing food pantries and “fill the backpack” programs to help make sure children have enough to eat over the weekends when they are away from regular, nutritional meals provided by the National School Lunch Program.
I first learned of this program in my hometown of Bearden when my mother mentioned an announcement from church, which asked for donations to help support the program at the school I attended growing up. I thought it was a great idea but also, a cause for great concern. How can children in the land of plenty still be hungry? With all the excess and waste, how can some children not have enough to eat?
The Arkansas Food Bank reports in its statistical data that 26.3 percent of state children have limited access to adequate food. That means one out of five families is struggling to provide enough food for their families to eat. That puts our state first in the nation for low food security, according to AFB’s website.
When one looks at the number of children who receive free and reduced-priced meals at school, it is easy to see why so many could benefit from food pantries and backpack programs. The NSLP is a federally-assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. The program was established under the National School Lunch Act, signed by President Harry Truman in 1946, according to the Arkansas Department of Education website.
The majority of students attending schools in Jefferson County receive free or reduced priced meals. The Education Department offers a breakdown of schools by district outlining paid and free/ reduced priced meals and overall percentages. Here is the data from county districts: Dollarway, 87 paid, 1,210 free/reduced, 93.29 percent free/reduced; Pine Bluff, 577, paid, 3,663, free/reduced; 86.39 percent, free/reduced; Watson Chapel, 714, paid, 2,065, free/reduced, 74.31, percent free/reduced; White Hall, 1,639 paid, 1,305, free/reduced; 44.33 percent, free/reduced; Responsive Ed Solutions Quest Middle School, 2, paid, 55, free/reduced, 96.49 percent, free/reduced; Pine Bluff Lighthouse Academy, 25, paid, 268, free/reduced, 91,47 percent, free/reduced.
During its February meeting, the Pine Bluff School Board approved a food pantry which was set to begin serving the district this month. Robbie Williams, district deputy director of student services and wellness, conveyed the need for the program during the board meeting. “You can’t teach or even reach a kid if he’s hungry,” Williams said in an article published in the Pine Bluff Commercial.
The district’s program, like others across the state, had its beginnings when it was contacted by the Arkansas Food Bank about the need for a pantry. The AFB’s director, Yolanda Williams, is a graduate of Pine Bluff High School, and she reached out to her home district about the need for a program to assist children with food for afternoons and weekends – times when children may be hungry with little or no access to something to eat.
The program, which provides children with non-perishable food items, is being paid for through a grant provided by a private party.
Another town where I have ties, El Dorado, implemented a similar program district-wide earlier this month. The district had a program in one of its elementary schools, where the number of children receiving free or reduced priced meals was greater than 90 percent. Now, a backpack program will be offered district-wide when funding is secured.
While I am saddened by the fact so many children in our state are hungry and in need of something to eat, my heart is full because there are caring organizations and individuals who work to make a positive difference in their lives. Pine Bluff is an example of a community who is doing right by its children in the way it supports them in meeting the most basic of human needs.
Shea Wilson is the former managing editor of the El Dorado News-Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SheaWilson7.