A recent report found that Arkansas ranked worst in the nation for food insecurity, and while Union County is reportedly doing better than some others, volunteers at local food pantries have seen an increase in local needs this year.
A USDA survey released late last month found that 16.6 percent of Arkansas households were food insecure last year, including 6.5 percent who were “very low food insecure.” both indicators are higher than all other 49 states in the country.
According to Aspire Arkansas, a project of the nonprofit Arkansas Community Foundation, 15 percent of households in Union County were food insecure in 2021, the latest data available for the year.
Neighboring Columbia, Ouachita and Ashley counties have higher rates of food insecurity than Union County, while neighboring Calhoun and Bradley counties have lower rates.
Major David Robinson of the Salvation Army said he has seen a significant increase in need this year, which he said may be related to the loss of many food and cash benefits that were increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of people lost some of their food stamps and stuff for a while with the end of COVID and the shift. We’ve had several families lose their benefits,” he said. “It caused a huge jump in our numbers in terms of food boxes.”
For three or four months, he said, the Salvation Army was giving out 1,300-1,800 boxes of food a month. The number of families picking up food boxes has dropped back to the typical 750-850 a month in the past few months, he said, but the food is still going fast.
“Our post office food drive that the post office puts on for us – usually that gets us through to Christmas, but this year it’s gone and they’ve collected more food this year than last year,” Robinson said.
It’s a similar story at the Interfaith Help Services (IHS) food pantry, said Joe Doyle, IHS board president.
“We have a lot of first-timers, especially for utilities, but also for food,” he said this week. “It looks like some people have been turned away from government subsidy programs, so we’re seeing more people.”
More than 250,000 Medicaid beneficiaries were removed from the rolls in Arkansas as of October after normal — instead of COVID — Medicaid eligibility rules resumed in April, according to a report by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Temporary extensions of SNAP benefits related to the pandemic also ended in March of this year.
Robinson said that so far this year, the Salvation Army has already fed 3,000 more people than last year, with more than 64,000 meals served at the Murphy Red Shield Diner.
Looking ahead to Thursday, Robinson said he expects to surpass the 400 meals served last Thanksgiving.
“If it doesn’t rain, we hope to do more,” he said.
But both pantries will need the community’s help if they want to continue operating at their current levels for the rest of the year, Robinson and Doyle said.
“We’re going to send a letter to our churches to let them know that we have large donations, but we’re almost through it and come next year, if we don’t get any more donations, we’re going to have to start cutting our services,” Doyle said.
In addition to its food pantry, which residents can draw from monthly, IHS also provides limited utilities and emergency dental care.
Robinson said that since the COVID pandemic, when the Salvation Army began offering takeout to help prevent the spread of the virus, the cost of donations has gone up.
“All of our things are take-out that we serve; after COVID, nobody really wants to go into the building to sit down, they want it,” he said. “Those paper products have really gone up, almost double what they were two years ago.”
Right now, he said, the Salvation Army needs food donations, including everything from canned meats, pasta, rice, beans, peanut butter, jelly, cheese, macaroni and tuna to stew, chili, wieners, spaghetti, canned soups and cereals.
“Something like that,” he said.
Both the Salvation Army and IHS also order food from the Arkansas Food Bank, which provides a discount for food pantries like these.
“Money is probably the biggest thing. We can buy food through the Arkansas Food Bank cheaper than they can buy it at Wal-mart,” Doyle said. “But people like to bring donations from the house and are more than welcome to do that… (We can use) all kinds of canned goods, peanut butter and jelly.”
The Salvation Army’s annual Thanksgiving meal will be held this Thursday, Nov. 23, at the Murphy Red Shield Diner, 419 S. Madison, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Robinson said the nonprofit organization received surprisingly few delivery requests and urged those wanting food delivery to call.
“Last year we did over 120 deliveries and this year we don’t have as many,” he said. “And they can have more than one meal. If they want two meals apiece, we’re happy to do that.”
Volunteers are still needed to help serve, deliver and clean up after meals, Robinson said.
“A few come and stay an hour and then leave,” he said. “Just jump in and help where you can.”
The Salvation Army also kicked off its annual Red Kettle fundraiser during the holiday lighting ceremony downtown on Thursday. Robinson said local residents can sign up to ring the bell at registertoring.com.
HealthWorks and Planet Fitness are also hosting Salvation Army Angel Trees this year. Robinson said those wishing to “adopt” a child from one of the Angel Trees can do so by visiting one of the gyms or at the Salvation Army Madison office.
For more information about the Salvation Army Thanksgiving meal or to volunteer, call 870-863-4830. For more information about the IHS Food Pantry or other assistance, call the Episcopal Church of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church at 870-863-7064 or visit the Interfaith Help Services Facebook page.