WORKING AT ARKANSAS FOODBANK: Cathy May, SNAP outreach manager for the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. Courtesy Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance

In times of pandemic, such as the COVID-19 outbreak, one quickly gets down to covering the basics: food.

Unfortunately, Arkansas, a poor state, ranks among the worst in the nation for food insecurity. Nearly 20 percent of Pulaski County’s population is estimated as food insecure by the food-network nonprofit Feeding America; in Phillips County, it’s estimated at more than 30 percent. (For those who can’t square the circle of a state ranking high in both food insecurity and obesity, note that the cheapest and most readily available things to eat in most food insecure areas aren’t very nutritious and are usually high in fat.)

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“In times like this, people need to recognize how easily [food insecurity] can happen,” Tomiko Townley, advocacy director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, said.

The Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance is a statewide organization that works with school districts, hospitals, and the like in partnership with the state’s six food banks. The food banks are located in Mountain Home, Texarkana, Fort Smith, Little Rock, Jonesboro and Bethel Heights (Benton County). Fortunately, Jonesboro’s food bank did not get hit in the March 28 tornado that ripped through the Northeast Arkansas town.

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Members from all six food banks sit on the Alliance’s board, but the banks have autonomy in how they are run.

“You have to qualify to be a food bank; they’re basically warehouses,” Townley said, “so food safety, and how to distribute [food], is important.” Pantries, in turn, get their food from these banks.

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Arkansas County saw its first official COVID-19 case on Monday, March 30. Stuttgart’s ICCM Food Bank, serving the north part of the county, had already implemented curbside pick-up at the beginning of the month.

“We’re trying to keep people in their cars,” coordinator Bobby Bradberry said. “We’re just serving them curbside. If it gets bad enough, and we’re mandated to shut down, we’ll shut down.” He said there’s been no drop off in volunteerism. And Bradberry said demand, so far, “is not much different than what it was last year.” The Stuttgart pantry distributes groceries 11:30 to 1 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. “We’re still working; we’re still giving out groceries,” board member Marianne Maynard said.

Some pantries in Chicot, Cleburne, Dallas, Drew, Faulkner, Garland, Jefferson, Lee, Lincoln, Ouachita, Pulaski, Saline Union, Van Buren and White counties are closed until further notice. The list, at arkansasfoodbank.org, is evolving. However, even in these counties with pantry closures, others may remain open. “We’re, like, two or three weeks in, so there’s a lot of learning going on right now, and a lot of responding,” Townley said. For those needing help, arkansasfoodbank.org also has a list of food pantries that are still open to help their communities.

Hunger relief was already a patchwork system of federal, state and local governments, with foundations, corporations and individual advocates. However — as in every aspect of American life during this pandemic — there’s much uncertainty, and no centralized information forthcoming federally.

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“As far as a strategy, and a lot of long-term goal setting, that’s not happening right now. There’s no data collection. Communities are just turning to each other right now. The best we can do,” Townley said, “is organize with our other service providers.

“The reality is, everything takes a long time to do well,” she said. “There’s so much we can’t control. But if we can track how well some of these programs work in a pandemic, we can make them work afterward. We can do better, and the people with the least deserve better. And we can do better for them, when we come out of this,” she said.

Contact the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance at 501-399-9999 or arkansasfoodbank.org for information on food assistance resources in your area.

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