A crisis is afoot in the four counties that reside along the Oklahoma border in Northwest Arkansas and the problem will only get worst, according to information from the River Valley Regional Food Bank in Fort Smith.
Ken Kupchick, director of marketing and development at the RVRF, points to statistics that show between 24% and nearly 30% of children in Benton, Crawford, Sebastian and Washington Counties are deemed to be "food insecure," with the four counties ranking among the top 10 in childhood food insecurity statewide.
Kupchick said the numbers typically come as a surprise to most who see them.
"That was one of the the things I wanted to stress," he said. "It could be at our own demise, but many people believe the hunger problem in Arkansas is a rural one and having this data shines light on the fact that there is a significant problem there. For us, the problem is more of a metropolitan one. If we are going to fight this thing, we need to understand exactly what the monster looks like that we're fighting."
He said while food insecurity in the four counties making up the Interstate 49 corridor might not seem like a problem, it really is when one considers that more than 20% of the state's food insecure children live in one of the four counties.
"What you're looking at is Little Rock plus (the Fort Smith region) and Northwest Arkansas, that's definitely a third of the problem in those top five counties," Kupchick said.
With such a large number of hungry children, not to mention hungry parents and caregivers, organizations like the River Valley Regional Food Bank are often overloaded with demand and as a result, struggle to provide foods that are part of a balanced diet. Kupchick said the foods donated to food banks often are non-perishables, including peanut butter or day-old bread. He said the food banks also receive "experimental" items, such as a new line of food products that do not sell well and have to be gotten rid of.
Where food banks face real hurdles, Kupchick said, is providing fruits and vegetables, which he said are often the most expensive.
"The food you want to feed is expensive and it's not a readily donated product," he said. "It has it's own inherit market in the retail market. It doesn't come into the food bank world."
Another challenge once food banks are able to get the foods needed for a balanced diet is having the proper equipment to store it.
To combat the challenges he and other food bank executives are battling, Kupchick said individuals with a desire to fight hunger in the communities of the Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas regions needed to two two things — donate time and money.
"…To really feed kids on a day in and day out basis, it gets extremely expensive. Plus, logistically, it's back-breaking work to unload pickup trucks of 50 pound freight. The best solution is to buy your way out of it. Donate and we pay salaries and we hunt for food out there every day, working with food brokers and major food manufacturing (companies). We've got those wheels turning constantly. For us, it's connecting the dots, but we need money to do it."
Once food is purchased, someone must prepare it for distribution and he said that can be tough without a volunteer workforce to help ease the burden.
Kupchick said while the challenge is large and it involves more than just feeding children, overcoming childhood hunger was the surest way to give children living in poverty a fighting chance at a future that frees them from poverty.
"The empirical evidence is there. We have got to get nutrition into the hands of these children if we are going to break the cycle of poverty. That's why, to me, it should be the number one priority in this state. We're on the top of the list for all of the worst things for a reason. If we want off those lists, we need to create programs and policies to move us off the lists."
He said while some might be happy to just write a check or say a few nice words, it will take people at the highest points in government, business and society to overcome what he said is one of the largest challenges of this generation.
"This is something where we have to draw a line in the sand and say this is our top priority in the state — no kid goes hungry. It starts with that kind of commitment at the top echelons. You can't issue a press release and go to the next issue. This is my focus."