Volunteers with the Heber Springs School District spent time over this past Valentine’s Day weekend packing up food boxes for community members to pick up during a distribution event on Sunday. The district also provided additional internet hotspots to students’ families, in anticipation of the winter weather this week. The boxes had a direct impact on the community. Students and staff were on the front lines directing traffic, greeting, and helping to load them up in the vehicles.

In 2020, Arkansas Foodbank distributed 40.4 million pounds of food across central and southern Arkansas, a 37 percent increase from 2019. The Foodbank attributes the sharp rise in distribution to the economic impact the coronavirus pandemic had on communities across central and southern Arkansas. As workers were laid off, schools closed and seniors became home-bound, more Arkansans than ever before needed assistance putting food on tables.

“Thousands of Arkansans are only a paycheck away from experiencing hunger. The pandemic only intensified the challenges these people were already facing,” said Rhonda Sanders, CEO of Arkansas Foodbank. “With each new year, we set new goals and plan for how we can reach more people, but March of 2020 quickly revealed that we would be helping people who had never needed the Foodbank before – people we didn’t expect to serve.”

Sanders explained that because the need for food increased so rapidly, the Foodbank had to adjust its operation model in order to distribute larger volumes of food while keeping staff, volunteers and clients safe.

“Many of our partner agencies had to pause their operations to ensure the health and safety of their volunteers and staff, leaving large service gaps across our region,” said Sanders. “In response, the Foodbank took a hands-on approach by quickly pulling together resources and staff to pack emergency food boxes in our warehouse. Those boxes were given away to schools and through mobile food distributions to assist neighbors and students with immediate needs.”

Many of these additional resources were provided via USDA programs like The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and the Coronavirus Federal Assistance Program (CFAP), also known as the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. With farmers facing their own set of challenges because of the pandemic, the federal government purchased excess food from local farmers to provide for direct distribution, including fresh products like meat, dairy and vegetables. Because of CFAP, the Foodbank provided 5.6 million pounds of this food, 15 percent of its total distribution, to our neighbors in central and southern Arkansas during 2020.

Prior to the pandemic, 17 percent of Arkansans were considered food-insecure. Now, Feeding America projects that number will rise to 22 percent, meaning an additional 75,000 people could need help finding food in the days ahead.

“Food banks across the country are facing a food cliff in 2021,” says Sanders. “As federal emergency programs are expected to scale back, there will be a gaping hole left for these organizations to fill. In Arkansas alone, it will cost millions to make up the difference in order for these people to have enough to eat.”

The Foodbank is preparing for this increased need and building its capacity for the months and years ahead. “We know it’s going to take a while for families and individuals to get back on their feet,” says Sanders. “To make sure we’re prepared, we’re scaling our operations to include more mobile distributions, adding to our fleet to deliver larger volumes and expanding our storage capacity so that we can accept more food.”

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