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Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance 

The state's ultimate anti-hunger warriors.

click to enlarge GLEANING: Kathy Webb, executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, said the nonprofit's Arkansas Gleaning Project produced 1.2 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables this year.
  • GLEANING: Kathy Webb, executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, said the nonprofit's Arkansas Gleaning Project produced 1.2 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables this year.

When Mark Warner, assistant supervisor at the Central Arkansas Community Correction Center in Little Rock, posts a notice of a new session of Cooking Matters, a class on how to shop on a budget and cook healthy food, inmates always hurry to sign up. "In less than 24 hours, there'll be 50 names on [the sign-up sheet]," he said. "And I don't have but 125 guys. They can't get enough."

Arkansas has the second-worst food insecurity rate in the country — a U.S. Department of Agriculture measure of both access to enough food and access to sufficient nutritional food — according to Feeding America's 2018 Map the Meal Gap survey. Little Rock's Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance is working to combat that statistic from so many different angles that executive director Kathy Webb jokes that her elevator explanation of what the nonprofit does requires an elevator ride to the top of the Empire State Building. It's hard for her to name her favorite alliance program, but she says Cooking Matters is "one of the coolest things we do."

"We know you can reduce your food insecurity up to 50 percent if you learn to cook and shop," Webb said. "By learning how to shop, you're learning unit pricing, learning how to stretch your food dollars, when to buy fresh, when to buy frozen, when to buy canned. We teach you, if what you'd done before was to go buy a box of Hamburger Helper, that instead if you separately bought all the ingredients of that meal, it would be less expensive, take the same amount of time and be a lot healthier for you."

As it does with a lot of its initiatives, the Hunger Relief Alliance works to find partner organizations that want to bring Cooking Matters to their communities and provide those partners with support. The alliance teams with just about every group imaginable on the program: churches, senior centers, after-school programs. But, before Warner started teaching Cooking Matters in early 2017 as a pilot when he was a deputy warden at the Department of Correction's J. Aaron Hawkins Sr. Center, the class had never been taught in a correctional setting anywhere in the country.

State prisons offer programming on writing a resume and work preparation, but there has been a dearth of health and fitness programming in state correction, Warner said. Cooking Matters was a good fit because, Warner said, "when you start talking about people involved in the justice system, a lot of them don't know where their next meal is going to come from. This gives them some tools in their box that they could take home and be able to feed their families, both more economically and actually feed them a better diet."

Warner saw it as part of an effort to get inmates ready to re-enter the real world. "Because 95 percent of inmates who are locked up are going home," he said. "What we had been doing for years was handing you $100 and saying, 'Good luck, we'll see you after while.' Nationwide, and here in Arkansas, the pendulum has really swung the other way and we're really trying to get people ready to go home."

When Warner took the program to the Central Arkansas Community Correction Center after he began work there, Cooking Matters became an officially sanctioned program in the departments of correction and community correction. It's expected to soon expand to prisons, including Tucker, Grimes and McPherson, and Community Correction facilities in West Memphis and Texarkana.

"The great news about the program is the super support we get from the Hunger Relief Alliance. The program doesn't cost us anything. They come out and train staff. They're available all the time for any kind of support in terms of where can I get this and who can get me that," Warner said. He hopes to work with the alliance to develop curriculum specifically for inmates. "It's kind of hard to work on knife skills in a correctional setting," he quipped.

For her pitch on the work of the alliance, Webb borrows University of Illinois professor Craig Gunderson's keys for tackling hunger because they fit naturally with the alliance's mission:

No. 1: You need a strong emergency food system. The alliance works with food banks "to secure food for them and their pantries through a variety of programs, by looking for donated food, purchasing food and gleaning food," Webb said. The nonprofit's Arkansas Gleaning Project was the first of its kind in the country and is the most developed, she said. This year, the alliance worked with 21 farmers and hundreds of volunteers to glean about 1.2 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables. The Arkansas Beef Project, also the first program of its kind in the country, encourages Arkansas cattleman to donate cows to be processed for meat.

No. 2: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, must be kept strong. Webb said 20-25 percent of Arkansans who are eligible for what used to be known as food stamps don't take advantage of the program. The alliance works closely with the state Department of Human Services to get the word out, both through direct outreach and by training volunteers to do outreach.

No. 3: Other USDA programs must be kept strong. The alliance works with public schools to make sure they're taking advantage of free breakfast and lunch programs and with other community partners that offer after-school and summer feeding programs. The alliance's work in these areas comes as part of the No Kid Hungry campaign, an initiative of the national anti-hunger nonprofit Share Our Strength, which has provided the alliance with a multiyear grant. Webb said the Hunger Relief Alliance's big win in this area this year was the rollout of the Breakfast After the Bell "Good 2 Go" Smoothie program, a joint effort between the nonprofit, Baptist Health and the Little Rock School District.

The alliance had previously gotten the LRSD and other school districts to roll out Breakfast After the Bell programs, where students get free breakfast served in their classrooms. Twenty-one of 28 elementary schools in the LRSD offer the program. Studies have shown that having breakfast increases concentration, reduces behavioral problems and generally improves academic outcomes. But how to reach older kids who aren't as likely to go to the cafeteria first thing in the morning? The smoothie program launched in January 2018 at Hall, J.A. Fair and McClellan high schools in the LRSD. Rates of high school students having breakfast doubled, and even tripled at Hall, said Stephanie Walker Hynes, LRSD child nutrition director. This year, the program expanded to all 13 schools that serve children in grades 6-12. The smoothies are made with yogurt, fresh fruit and milk, and come with a package of granola that can be mixed in. "It's a trendy food item that's healthy and popular," Hynes said. The alliance helped the district structure the program, get new commercial kitchen equipment to make the smoothies and market the program. That sort of support is "amazing," Hynes said.

No. 4: Advocacy is necessary. "Needless to say, this is one of my favorite things the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance does because of my love of policy," said Webb, a Little Rock city director, the city's vice mayor and a former state legislator. The alliance acts as the liaison to the Arkansas Legislative Hunger Caucus, the first such caucus in the country, and takes legislators to see or participate in alliance events throughout the year. It also works with the state's congressional delegation on federal legislation.

No. 5: Financial literacy is important. Webb puts Cooking Matters, which is also an initiative of Share Our Strength, in this category. The program has reached some 41,000 Arkansans since it began in 2012.

The alliance has around 500 members who pay $25 per year. Membership includes food pantries, community groups and individuals. The nonprofit regularly sends out action alerts when it needs help advocating for certain legislation or helping in the field. Although the alliance receives support from the state and federal government and national funders like Share Our Strength, Webb said the organization has traditionally lagged when it comes to individual donors, though donations have increased in recent years.

To donate or learn more, visit arhungeralliance.org.

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