Around 150 volunteers and staff of the United Way of Southeast Arkansas and Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield gathered Thursday morning in the gymnasium at the First United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff to pack 30,000 meals for Arkansas Blue Cross’ Fearless Food Fight campaign as part of the United Way’s annual Day of Caring event.

Volunteers also read to children at local schools on Thursday.

The United Way is also kicking off its annual fundraising campaign, with a goal set at more than $1 million.

According to a news release, “Arkansas Blue Cross has committed to packing 700,000 meals in celebration of its 70th anniversary later this year, providing nutritious fare to fight food insecurity in Arkansas.”

Rebecca Pittillo, an Arkansas Blue Cross regional executive, led the opening ceremony at the church gym, which included sounding a ceremonial gong to start the event.

United Way and Arkansas Blue Cross employees then worked elbow-to-elbow to pack their goal of 30,000 meals in a little more than an hour. These meals will help stock food banks and pantries in the Jefferson County area.

Meals from Thursday’s event will go to the Delta Food Network, Neighbor to Neighbor, The Salvation Army and the CASA Women’s Shelter. Arkansas ranks second in the nation for food insecurity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to a recent report, nearly 20 percent of Arkansans (roughly one in five) do not know from where they will receive their next meal.

The state ranks number one nationally for very low food security, with 8.1 percent of Arkansas adults and children experiencing deep hunger. They may cut back or skip meals frequently. Arkansas also ranks number five for senior hunger, with an estimated 240,000 Arkansans age 60 or older struggling with having enough food. Nutrition is one of several social determinants of good health, the news release said.

“Arkansas Blue Cross will continue to take a multifaceted approach to improving the health of our state,” said Curtis Barnett, Arkansas Blue Cross president and CEO.

“Our company already supports and will continue to support programs addressing the social determinants of health. However, we want to make a concerted effort to work with other organizations in the state that are committed to helping people have access to nutritious food. Great work already is being done throughout Arkansas, and we want to continue to do our part in helping to ensure our most vulnerable citizens have access to healthy food.”

Leslie Dorn, executive director of the United Way of Southeast Arkansas, said that “on average, over 23 percent of households in the counties of Southeast Arkansas are food insecure. That just won’t do. We at the United Way of Southeast Arkansas are excited to partner with Arkansas Blue Cross as part of our annual Day of Caring. Together we are fighting and winning the battle against hunger.”

In a news release issued late Thursday afternoon, the United Way of Southeast Arkansas offered words of thanks to the many volunteers who helped pack meals.

“To everyone who participated today in body or spirit, we want to thank you for helping to provide 30,000 meals to hungry Arkansans,” the news release said. “There was proof today that Southeast Arkansas is home to the most amazing people. We are humbled by your generosity of spirit and your compassion for your fellow human beings. Our community is a better place because of all of you who so generously give your time, your warmth, your humor and your caring. Thank you for volunteering.”

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