Hunger is an issue that Arkansas struggles with, and depending on what happens in Washington, local organizations may have fewer resources to fight it.
But many people are stepping in to ease that burden.
Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield employees began a year-long campaign Monday to pack 700,000 meals for food pantries across the state. More than 170 employees filled the Next Level Events space in downtown Little Rock to package 40,000 meals.
“People are often kind of confounded about: how can we be in a state with a high obesity rate, but also such a high number of food-insecure people, as well,” said Curtis Barnett, CEO of Arkansas Blue Cross. “And a lot of it is-- they just don’t have access to good, nutritious food on a regular basis. And we want to help eliminate that problem.”
“We’ve seen a lot of community support, both in outreach for volunteerism, and also for individual contributions to our Meals on Wheels fundraising.”
The “Fearless Food Fight” campaign marks the company’s 70th anniversary. It comes at a time when programs that provide meals to those in need, such as Meals on Wheels, worry about losing large amounts of funding.
“We’ve seen a lot of community support, both in outreach for volunteerism, and also for individual contributions to our Meals on Wheels fundraising,” stated Michelle Gilbert, Marketing and Outreach Manager for CareLink, the organization that manages the program.
Its leaders’ eyes are on Washington as they assess the possibility of cuts to a couple of its funding streams. Congress has not passed a budget in some time, creating uncertainty at the local level. One result is that CareLink had to create a waiting list last fall for the Meals on Wheels program, which numbered as many as 100 clients. It had not created a waiting list in over a decade.
“Somebody who’s on this waiting list may be waiting for a few weeks or a few months in order to receive that service,” Gilbert stated. “And for someone who is on the borderline of having to go into a long-term care facility—versus being able to stay in their own home—those few weeks can really make a difference.”
Gilbert said the waiting list was cleared in February because money for some of CareLink’s other programs was reallocated to Meals on Wheels. “The home-delivered meal program—and the individuals who are receiving that—just have a higher need and are at a little more risk, so we prioritized that service,” she explained.
Dancing will not help those in need get food, but thanks to an up-tempo soundtrack, it did help the volunteers from Arkansas Blue Cross during their meal-packing party. They had so much energy that they blew past their initial goal to pack 30,000 meals, and put together 40,000, instead.
Working for an insurance company, they see hunger in a different way.
“We see the impact that food insecurity has on our members,” Barnett said. “When we see some of the chronic medical conditions that our members have, when we see developmental delays among some of our members—well, especially the youth—a lot of that comes back to good nutrition and having access to food. So, we want to make sure that food insecurity is not the reason people in Arkansas are not healthy.”
According to the most recent data, 17.5 percent of Arkansas families do not know where their next meal will come from.
“We’ve recognized that, in order to have the biggest impact that we can on people, it’s not just enough to focus on health care,” Barnett stated. “We’ve also got to focus on the other things that may impact them from being healthy, as well.”
For seniors, the risk of hunger is even higher: one in five in the state is food insecure. “We’re doing, sort of worst-case-scenario planning,” Gilbert said, “and trying to look forward and see how we can be as lean as possible in the months to come, to kind of counteract any cuts that may be on the horizon.”
Arkansas Blue Cross teamed up with The Pack Shack, an Arkansas non-profit, to put those meals together. Its CEO sees a growing trend of people offering to help, in case Washington doesn’t.
“Funding cuts obviously affect a lot of people,” Bret Raymond said, “but it also provides neighbors in the community with a big opportunity to step in and help their own neighbors in need.”
In its first four years in existence, The Pack Shack organized events for groups that packaged approximately 20,000,000 meals. It hopes to deliver another 10,000,000 this year, and Arkansas Blue Cross’ commitment will go a long way toward that goal. “The impact of what they’re going to do this year is really dramatic for the state of Arkansas,” Raymond said.
The meals packed Monday by the Arkansas Blue Cross employees will go to four local food pantries: Geyer Springs United Methodist Church, Levy Church of Christ, Sylvan Hills Community Church, and The Watershed.
Raymond mentioned that The Pack Shack works with groups like the one from Arkansas Blue Cross nearly every day. “And that’s what we love about the state of Arkansas and the people of Arkansas,” he said, “is, we’re action people. When we see people in need, we respond.”