PACKING FOOD: 42 staffer Melissa Hooper works at the Clinton Center. Samantha Higgins/Clinton Foundation

On March 11, before Governor Hutchinson directed that Central Arkansas schools close down in response to the new outbreak of COVID-19, city officials were discussing ways to feed students. Some 21,000 K-12 students are enrolled in the LRSD and 73 percent of them qualify for free breakfast and lunch (the district also provides some snacks and dinners to students).

“We were thinking we’d have several days to plan,” Jay Barth, chief education officer for the city, said. But the next day, Governor Hutchinson announced that schools in Pulaski and three other Central Arkansas counties would close March 13.

Nonetheless, the LRSD and a host of community partners managed to react quickly. That first day school was closed, the district distributed grab-and-go lunches at every district school building. That only lasted for a day. The Clinton Foundation and World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit devoted to feeding people in the wake of natural disasters, joined the effort beginning Saturday, March 14, and dramatically expanded it. They soon began offering lunch and dinner on weekends, dinner on weeknights and lunch and dinner during spring break when school was officially out of session.

By Monday, March 16, the district was distributing breakfast and lunch at eight schools (Booker Arts Magnet, Chicot, Martin Luther King, Romine, Stephens, Terry and Wakefield elementary schools and McClellan High School) and three libraries (Dee Brown, McMath and Terry). The Clinton Foundation and World Central Kitchen soon began paying local food trucks to distribute food to sites around Central Arkansas, including some Little Rock Housing Authority properties. The trucks now distribute to around 30 sites.

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The meals distributed by the LRSD are available to all students regardless of whether they attend public, private or charter schools. The meals provided by the Clinton Foundation and World Central Kitchen are available to anyone who shows up to distribution sites. As of April 1, the coalition had distributed more than 70,000 meals.

“I honestly don’t know of any other place that has done as much as Little Rock has in terms of breakfast, lunch and dinner, weekends, spring break,” LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore said. “It’s really a tribute to a lot of people saying, ‘We’ve got to do this for kids and making it happen.’ ”

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Brian Chilson
MIKE POORE: Says Little Rock’s effort is the most robust he knows of.

A survey of regionally large school districts supports Poore’s claim. In Springdale, the state’s largest school district based on enrollment, schools were providing grab-and-go breakfast and lunch only during the week. The Tulsa School District was doing the same. The YMCA of Memphis had taken over feeding Shelby County Schools students, but it was also only providing meals during the week at lunchtime and families must provide some sort of identification that includes proof of residence.

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Bureaucratic failure has been a hallmark of the coronavirus pandemic. That several of Little Rock’s largest public institutions have banded together to pull off such a logistically complicated operation owes to a partnership formed last year and some additional international players with local ties.

Last summer, the city, the LRSD, the library and the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance came together to develop the Be Mighty campaign to continue providing free meals to kids over summer break. The effort was supported by a grant from the National League of Cities that was funded by the Walmart Foundation. A separate grant from the National Recreation and Park Association provided free bus passes for more than 2,500 kids 18 years old and younger who needed transportation to access the meals.

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“The objective was to create these sorts of local initiatives that cause people to sit down and think through ways of working that they hadn’t thought about before,” Nate Coulter, executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System, said.

“Last summer, for the first time, we had all these people at the table,” said Kathy Webb, a Little Rock director and the executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. The grant ended when school began in August 2019, but the “partnership is paying dividends way beyond the end of the Be Mighty campaign,” Webb said. “We know where the kids are, we know where the sites should be, we know oftentimes what the barriers are.”

BRIAN CHILSON
WEBB: Says the Be Mighty campaign continues to pay dividends.

Webb and her team at the Hunger Relief Alliance have been able to provide technical support to the district in terms of the U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements to receive reimbursements, including for meals distributed off-site at public libraries. “Those are very complicated and changing now by the day in some cases,” Webb said. The Friday before spring break, the Arkansas Foodbank, which is part of the Hunger Relief Alliance, provided families with take-home boxes of food to help them through the week. And, again, Rock Region Metro joined in the effort by offering free rides to youths 18 and younger to meal sites.

But Little Rock’s feeding effort has been especially successful because of a pair of players new to the team.

Spanish-American celebrity chef Jose Andrés founded World Central Kitchen in 2010 to help respond to the earthquake that devastated Haiti that year. The nonprofit helps provide food in the wake of disasters by working with chefs and other culinary professionals. (Andrés recently penned a guest column for the New York Times calling for the federal government to create an emergency relief effort in the spirit of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration and modeled after World Central Kitchen to feed people and employ hospitality workers.)

World Central Kitchen has been providing thousands of meals daily amid the pandemic in New York City, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, New Orleans, Miami and more. Much smaller Little Rock was one of the first cities in which it began distributing meals because of its long partnership with the Clinton Foundation. Stephanie Streett, executive director of the foundation, said the two nonprofits have worked together on “a number of efforts,” including recently in hurricane- and earthquake-stricken Puerto Rico. During the 2018-19 federal government shutdown, the Clinton Foundation helped support the #ChefsforFeds campaign to provide meals to furloughed government employees in Little Rock.

Arkadelphia native Kyle Pounders was the point person for that campaign and is leading the coronavirus feeding effort in Little Rock for World Central Kitchen.

Almost two years ago, he left Little Rock in his food truck Excaliburger. “I was thinking, ‘Hey this is America, they love cheeseburgers everywhere.’ I could potentially go on an indefinite road trip.” In September 2018, he was in North Carolina for an event that was canceled because of Hurricane Florence. He set up a GoFundMe that friends and followers in Arkansas provided money for, and with that he was able to feed people affected by the disaster. That experience led him to Florida to help feed people in the wake of Hurricane Michael in October 2018. It was there he connected with World Central Kitchen.

Pounders said the organization’s pitch to him in Florida was, “Keep doing basically what you’re already doing, but we’ll fund you.” Since then, he’s worked for the nonprofit in the wake of the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., in 2019; again in Florida and North Carolina and in the Bahamas. He now operates two food trucks, Excaliburger and Cream Truck, and has a clause in his contract that, if disaster strikes, he’s likely to be deployed by World Central Kitchen.

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Here’s how the division of labor of Little Rock’s feeding effort breaks down: A handful of LRSD school cafeteria kitchens prepare the breakfasts and lunches the school distributes at its campuses and at library branches during the week. The district receives federal reimbursement for those meals. As of March 31, the LRSD had distributed 11,500 meals. As of April 1, the Clinton Center and World Central Kitchen had distributed more than 60,000 meals. That number is far greater than the LRSD’s because World Central Kitchen has provided all the meals that the LRSD doesn’t get reimbursed for — on nights, weekends and during spring break — as well as for Pulaski County Special School District students and others.

FOOD FOR STUDENTS: Library staffers Cyndi Barron-Harris and Aaron Hill distribute food outside of the McMath Library branch.

The Clinton Presidential Center is the home base of operations for everything the LRSD doesn’t do. World Central Kitchen is funding all of the food and supplies, paid for through private donations. For the cause, the Clinton Foundation is providing some 20-30 staff members, largely members of the culinary staff of 42 bar and table, who are leading the food preparation. Some 50 daily volunteers assist in the preparation and packaging of meals. Everyone involved gets their temperature taken from LRSD nurses when they come on-site. They have to fill out a form detailing their contacts and health history and wear gloves, masks and hairnets. The food gets double-packed in containers. Then, some 20 food trucks pick up the food and take it to their designated spot and pass it out and get paid a stipend for their time. The food truck owners or employees have to go through the same safety protocol.

OUTSIDE THE CLINTON CENTER: Food trucks wait to pick up food to distribute throughout Central Arkansas.

Luis Vasquez, owner of El Sur Street Food Co., has been distributing dinner meals for World Central Kitchen for two weeks. He closed his truck on March 27. With restaurants shut to dine-in customers, business had been booming, but there came a point where Vasquez said, “I personally couldn’t do it anymore.” He said he got hung up on the “what ifs” of putting himself or customers at risk. With the World Central Kitchen distribution, there’s no physical contact with customers or their cash or credit cards.

“This is something to keep us busy and doing something for the community, for the kids who need it,” he said. “It’s something that helps me pay for gas and bills here and there. It’s enough to keep me hoping.”

He said people have been grateful for the meals.

“The kids we provide the meals to, they’re excited about it. The parents are grateful they don’t have to worry about how or what to feed them.” But he did say that some were sad because they hoped he was bringing them a taco or a baleada, the Honduran version of a burrito that’s his speciality.

VASQUEZ: Says he’s glad to be helping the community.

Gilbert Alaquinez, chef at Kemuri and owner of The Lab Food Truck, parks at the LRSD’s Terry Elementary to distribute dinners. He shared a thank you note he got from a boy named Walkar: “Thank you for giving food to people in need,” he wrote. “The best meal to me was the pasta. My sister thinks the salsberry steak is the best. If people like you didn’t do something some people would go hungry.”

Pounders said this “activation” has been one of the easiest he’s been involved with because of the Clinton Foundation team. Getting food out on time is usually a problem, but not here, he said. “I hear some people within our organization say we’re not a feeding organization, we’re a logistics organization,” Pounders said.

“There’s always weird variables” when responding to disasters, he said. For instance, once the Clinton Center began producing 5,000 meals a day it didn’t have enough capacity to keep its food cold. The solution was to get three refrigerator trucks parked behind the center.

Pounders declined to say how much World Central Kitchen had spent on the Little Rock operation, but said it was committed for the duration of the crisis. “We’ll be ready for whatever we need to do,” he said. Those who want to donate to the organization’s Little Rock effort can do so at wck.org/littlerock.

ON THE MENU: The Clinton Foundation and World Central Kitchen recently cooked up Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts.

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Nia Ahmad is a counselor at eSTEM Charter School who has volunteered at the Clinton Center. While school was going, she regularly passed out take-home food to some of her students and was missing them, she said.

“It’s pretty uplifting,” she said of volunteering. “We’re all pretty grateful that we’re healthy and we’re able to help others in the community. It’s been a nice break in my day to feel positive about something.”

Ahmad spoke to a reporter over video chat along with Kaylah Jackson, who normally works as a volunteer and special events coordinator for the Little Rock Zoo. She’d been redirected to the Clinton Center to help coordinate volunteers. She said she was working to get more volunteers and make sure people were where they needed to be. Ben Thielemier, communications and external affairs managers for the foundation, interrupted to say she was being humble. “We’re all basically working for her,” Streett said. While certain city of Little Rock employees have assisted at the Clinton Center, staffing the growing effort remains a challenge. Those interested in volunteering, who are under the age of 65, can sign up at littlerock.gov/volunteer.

Streett pledged that the Clinton Foundation, too, is committed to feeding kids and other people in need for as long as necessary. President Bill Clinton has been very engaged, she said. “He’s asking for briefings everyday on how many kids have been fed, what we’re doing, how he can be helpful to this effort.” He’s also called in to thank volunteers for helping.

Kathy Webb, while acknowledging that the focus is on the immediate need, said she’s hopeful the partners can continue making strides to keep Little Rock kids fed.

“We’re not finished,” she said. When school goes back next year, she hopes to employ data gained from this crisis to figure out how to provide regular meals for kids on weeknights and weekends. “Then there’s more work to do: How do we get a grocery store in certain areas? How do we make sure there’s transportation? There’s lots of steps. I think you’re gonna see a lot more coming from this partnership down the road.”

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.