25 years ago an Arkansas public school nurse noticed some children arriving at school listless and hungry. After some questioning, she discovered that the lunch in the cafeteria at school the day before was the last meal they had eaten. She made a phone call that day that would greatly impact the lives of hungry children in Arkansas. She called the Arkansas Rice Depot and asked if they could help with getting these children food. Immediately, Laura Rhea the CEO of Arkansas Rice Depot launched the Food For Kids Backpack Program, sending hungry children home with backpacks filled with food every weekend and on school breaks. Now, some 25 years later, this program continues to be operated by the Arkansas Foodbank and has been replicated nationwide, and even in Mexico, to ensure kids are getting the food they desperately need when they are out of school.
It’s astonishing that today 1 in 4 kids in Arkansas don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Children licking milk cartons in the cafeteria because they are dreadfully hungry, families living in sheds when parents are out of work, and children sharing households with 10 plus people are just a few of the heart wrenching stories we’ve heard from our Backpack Program facilitators in central and southern Arkansas over the years. Kathleen, a school counselor, tells the haunting story of one such child that was attending her school. She soon learned that he was homeless which helped to explain his extreme underdeveloped body. He was quickly placed on the Food For Kids Backpack program and half way through the school year had noticeable improvements. His BMI was now normal for his age—he had grown 2 inches! His outlook and attitude changed. She says, “It was like watching a skeleton blossom back into a boy.”
When children don’t have access to the food they need, we know that it not only affects their learning, but it also affects their development and growth. “When children are worried about being hungry, it affects their ability to learn,” said one school counselor. “They cannot focus on the classroom activities because they are concerned about whether or not they will be hungry tonight.” It’s simple, a hungry child can’t learn. It’s what we’ve always believed at the Foodbank and what we continue to believe. This is why for the past 25 years, the Food For Kids Program has been so important, and why we are constantly seeking ways to advance programming and look to the future.
Since the merger of the Arkansas Rice Depot and the Arkansas Foodbank in 2016, the united organization has looked for ways to grow and strengthen the Food For Kids Program. These have included efforts to increase the number of school based pantries, because as you can see from the stories above, if a child is hungry, it’s very likely the whole family is facing hunger as well. We are expanding programs like our mobile distributions and developing new programming to reach the most vulnerable children and their families with fresh produce and nutrition education to make an even bigger impact for those facing hunger in our communities.
25 years of feeding hungry children is something we are so proud of—but there is still so much to be done and so many children in central and southern Arkansas to feed. In fact, you can help feed hungry children by supporting our Hunger Heroes campaign. Right now, kids and young adults in our community are raising money for our Food For Kids program to help us continue the fight against hunger to reach even more children in need. If you’d like to donate to our Hunger Heroes campaign or learn more about our Food For Kids Program, you can visit our website at arkansasfoodbank.org.