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When it came to hungry people, Arkansas ranked near the top 75 years ago. Not much has changed.
According to the 2004 annual survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Arkansas had the largest percentage of people who lacked adequate access to nutritious food. In the 2005 survey, Arkansas was fourth.
About 414,000 Arkansas do not get the food they need, the study concluded. In addition, the number of Arkansans receiving food stamps to supplement their food supply is at an all-time high — about 300,000.
But there have never been as many resources in history devoted to fighting hunger in Arkansas.
There are larger non-profit agencies, such as the Arkansas Food Bank Network and Arkansas Rice Depot, that collect, warehouse and distribute donated food measured in tons.
There are large and tiny food pantries, a vast majority operated through churches and faith-based programs, that serve as pick-up points for largely canned and non-perishable items.
In the Little Rock area, there is Potluck, an agency that gleans high-quality excess food before it is discarded from restaurants, institutional kitchens and food markets and makes it available to the needy.
Heifer International, the most high-profile Arkansas-based non-profit group, is better known for its work in other countries, but it has a number of initiatives in Arkansas, including a project that helps 70 Delta families establish “profitable environmentally sustainable small livestock operations,” and the Dunbar Garden Project in Little Rock that gives urban schoolchildren a chance to grow food organically.
All of these programs are dwarfed by billions of federal dollars and dizzying policies and programs designed to ensure the production, distribution and access to nutritious food in America.
It’s a battle where the enemy — hunger — is not always defined in the same terms, the solutions are debated, and the emerging issue of obesity makes some believe there must not be a problem.
“It’s a very complex issue,” said Dr. Margaret Bogle, who leads the USDA-financed Delta Nutrition Research Initiative based in Little Rock. Her organization was founded in 1999 to determine the best way to “help hungry people who aren’t getting a good diet or enough food.” Testing new ideas, such as community gardens, and measuring results is critical, she said.
“Too much money is being plowed into these federal programs that aren’t working. We’ve got to find what works and what does not work,” Bogle said.
Hunger is the offspring of poverty, said Hope Coulter, executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Coalition.
“One long-term buffer against hunger would be higher wages,” Coulter said. The legal minimum wage is $5.15 an hour, while research shows wages of $10.26 to $16.88 an hour (depending on number of people in the household and the location in Arkansas) are required for “basic needs” to be met, she noted.
What about tax dollars and donations that go to feed people who refuse to work or don’t deserve the help?
Phyllis Haynes, executive director of the Arkansas Foodbank Network, said it is important to create and enforce eligibility criteria, but her philosophy is to not risk serving genuinely needy families because of potential abuse by others.
“About 70 percent of the food pantries we serve are faith-based, and their philosophy tends to be if there is any abuse, that’s between them and God, that is not my place to judge,” Haynes said.