It's not every day that Fort Smith, Ark., is in the national spotlight. It's not every day that a film crew from a world-renowned publication makes a visit to this community to shed light on one of the country's most startling epidemics, either.
What does happen every day though, is that nearly one in four seniors in Arkansas struggle to put food on the table. Many don't know from where there their next meal will come and often are forced to choose between buying groceries or buying medications.
National Geographic Magazine is tackling the subject of hunger, and in doing so, made its way to Fort Smith. In collaboration with a feature on "Hunger in America" in its magazine, the publisher is making a video for its website focusing on the issue of hunger in senior adults.
"The original plan was to do a periodical story about 'Hunger in America.' I was approached to offer some story angles and was selected," said Ken Kupchick, director of marketing and development for the River Valley Regional Food Bank. "However, when the editors met, they felt that going to Arkansas was too easy a go-to story. It was generally thought that Arkansas, being ranked as first in low food security hunger, was the obvious go-to location. Surely, if there is hunger in America, it would be found in more unconventional places."
With that in mind, the editors chose to omit Arkansas from the piece.
However, Kupchick believed there was a story that needed to be told and persisted that the magazine take another look at the state and region.
"As the days went forward, just too many compelling stories continued to land on the food bank's doorstep, and so I continued to pitch these stories back to the editor," explained Kupchick.
His persistence paid off. Although the editors opted to exclude Arkansas from the printed piece, they did decide to make a video for their website focusing specifically on the growing threat of senior hunger.
A film crew was dispatched to Fort Smith to work with Kupchick, the food bank, and some of its agencies.
"The film shoot will overview the food bank and the work we do in west central Arkansas," said Kupchick. "The filmmaker will focus on Charlotte Tidwell and her organization, Antioch Consolidated Association for Youth and Family, and shadow her as she selects food from the food bank, loads and unloads it at her place of mission, employs volunteers to create grocery bags full of food for seniors, reloads the bags and distributes that food to seniors in low income housing domiciles in Fort Smith. The film will follow some of the senior homes to discuss their individual struggles with food insecurity."
The issue of senior hunger is not a new problem, but one that has been on the rise in recent years. According to a study conducted by the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger (NFESH), " In the aftermath of the Great Recession, as of 2011, nearly one in six seniors faced the threat of hunger"— a significant increase from 2007 when the rate was one in eight seniors.
The rate of senior hunger in Arkansas is even more alarming.
"In Arkansas, more than 160,000 seniors face hunger, according to a press release issued by Gov. Beebe and a study released by the Arkansas Department of Human Services Division of Aging and Adult Services," stated Kupchick. "They estimate the senior food insecurity rate at one in three. NFESH estimates the threat of hunger at 24.23% in Arkansas, the highest in the nation."
One contributing factor to the state's food insecurity level is that poverty in Arkansas has been a long standing generational problem.
"Across the country, your chances are one in three to be food insecure if you live at twice the federal poverty definition or below," explained Kupchick. "The odds are against many in Arkansas. If you're southern, divorced, a high school drop-out, a minority, a renter, unemployed or disabled, and are raising your children's children, the likelihood of food insecurity grows phenomenally against you. If you are a married Northern white college graduate without a grandchild living with you and you own your own home and have a retirement income, you are virtually assured at being food secure."
In its 2012 Annual Report, the River Valley Regional Food Bank noted it finds its seniors "to have a chronic need. ... they now rely upon the food they receive from food pantries to make it from month to month. The USDA tells us that there are actual ‘food deserts’ in our service area with little to no access to healthy and affordable foods."
Another contributor to senior hunger in Arkansas is the challenge that many face in applying for food assistance.
"There are about 3,000 seniors on food stamps (SNAP) in Sebastian County, or about 17% of our elderly population. The stigma associated with food stamps, the myths that the food stamp application process is tedious, and that seniors only receive about $10 in food stamp benefits keep many seniors from applying," said Kupchick.
He also said the move of food stamps from a tear-out coupon format to an EBT card system has proven daunting for some seniors.
"Many seniors don't use debit cards," Kupchick explained. "They still write personal checks, so moving them towards EBT SNAP benefits remains complicated by technology."
The River Valley Regional Food Bank hopes that the video, and its participation in it, will help bring attention to one of the nation's ever-growing, and most troubling problems.
"As our nation ages and as the effects of the 2008 recession continue to take hold, we realize more attention needs to be drawn to the issue of senior hunger as it will have a tremendous impact as our aging populace becomes increasingly vulnerable due to a lack of adequate nutrition," said Kupchick.
The "Hunger in America" feature is scheduled to appear in National Geographic's May issue. The video will debut on the magazine's website in conjunction with the printed piece.