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story.lead_photo.caption STAFF PHOTO DAVID GOTTSCHALK Deanna Allen, kitchen helper at the Fayetteville Senior Activity and Wellness Center in Fayetteville, covers cobb salads in the kitchen June 16.

Needy people have more options than ever before to get food, yet studies by government and social service agencies continue to show increasing numbers of hungry people in Northwest Arkansas.

The Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, which serves Benton, Washington, Madison and Carroll counties, estimates on its website Northwest Arkansas has 100,000 hungry people every day. That's equivalent to about 20 percent of the population of the metropolitan statistical area, which includes Benton, Madison and Washington counties in Arkansas and McDonald County in Missouri.

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Walmart, Tyson Take On Hunger

Since 2000, Tyson Foods has donated 96 million pounds of food to food banks across the United States. Tyson has partnered with Food Research and Action Center, Feeding America and Lift Up America to feed the hungry. The “Fighting Hunger Together” initiative is part of Walmart’s $2 billion commitment through 2015 to fight hunger. Walmart and its foundation pledged to donate more than 1.1 billion pounds of food as well as $250 million in grants to support hunger-relief organizations.

Source: Staff Report

Young, Old in Arkansas Among Most Food Insecure

More than 200,000 children in Arkansas are at risk of hunger and not getting the food they need to lead healthy, active lives, according to the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. More than 28 percent of children in Arkansas live in poverty and nearly 30 percent of households with children in Arkansas struggled to afford enough food for themselves and their families, according to the Alliance.

A 2013 study from the Arkansas Department of Human Services found about one third of all Arkansas residents 60 or older, more than 160,000 people, are living with food insecurity. That puts Arkansas in the top tier, nationally, in seniors with food insecurity.

The study found food insecurity is caused primarily by financial hardship, but a lack of transportation and living in areas with few food stores and mobility limitations also contribute significantly.

Arkansas has one of the highest senior food insecurity rates in the country, according to studies by the AARP and the Meals on Wheels Association of America. Depending on the study, Arkansas is between first and seventh in senior food insecurity in the country for residents 60 and above. About 17 percent have marginal food insecurity, 10 recent have food insecurity and about 3 percent have very low food security, according to the AARP study. About 22 percent have some degree of food insecurity.

Some senior groups are more likely than others to face food insecurity, including African Americans, Hispanics and those who are widowed, divorced or separated, high school dropouts, renters, those with disabilities and grandparents caring for grandchildren. More than half of Arkansas seniors below 200 percent of the poverty level were food insecure last year, according to the studies.

Source: Staff Reports

Are there really that many people going hungry here?

The answer goes beyond a simple yes or no, local experts said, depending on whether the quality and affordability of food is considered.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture changed its annual, national survey in 2006 to include four ranges of "food insecurity."

The levels range from marginal food insecurity to true hunger, according to a 2013 Feeding America report. Marginal food insecurity is characterized by anxiety over how to pay for enough food, while people with very low food security have significantly interrupted eating patterns and may experience true hunger.

"Food insecurity is where you don't know where the next meal is coming from or you don't know how you're going to feed your family," said Marge Wolf, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank in Bethel Heights.

"And, yes, there are people who are hungry."

The number of food insecure also includes people who have enough food, but have a poor diet. They may not have regular access to, or be able to afford, fresh produce and meat.

Driving through and getting five burgers for $5, compared with buying more expensive bananas and oranges, can seem perfectly reasonable to someone with a limited number of dollars to spend on food, said Denise Garner, who co-founded Feed Communities, a nonprofit group that runs hunger, nutrition and education programs in Northwest Arkansas.

"Now we've got folks who are stuffed and starved. They're being fed food with no nutritional value," Garner said. "So, we end up with folks who are obese and ill."

Hunger and food insecurity affect thousands of Arkansas residents, but the young and old are hardest hit, Garner said.

"The faces of hunger have changed so drastically from what we used to see on TV, bone-thin, tummies distended," Garner said. "We've got a lot of folks who are hungry for a variety of reasons."

Food insecurity is associated with many negative health effects including malnutrition, poor overall health, extended hospital stays and cardiovascular disease, according to a 2013 study by the state Department of Human Services titled Senior Hunger in Arkansas.

Benton and Washington counties are second and third in numbers of food insecure children in a state that has one of the highest levels of poverty, according to a study by Feeding America.

The child food insecurity rate for Benton County was 24.2 percent according to the 2013 study, that's about 14,550 kids. Washington County's child food insecurity rate was 27.7 percent in the study, about 14,030 kids.

The food bank also notes data from the federal school lunch program show 57 percent of students in Northwest Arkansas qualified for free or reduced-price school meals, which now include breakfast and lunch. They also qualify for weekend snack pack programs.

The food bank, which supplies some 180 food pantries in Northwest Arkansas, distributed more than 6.7 million pounds of food last year, according to its website. The organization says it served more than 98,650 seniors last year. About 40 percent of clients were children under the age of 18.

The Agriculture Department administers a variety of supplemental nutrition programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps; Women, Infants and Children; Children & Adult Care Food Program; TEFAP, an emergency food program; Food Distribution on Indian Reservations; Head Start; school lunch and breakfast programs; summer food program; Elderly Nutrition Program; and the Commodity Distribution Program.

Almost 20,000 people in Benton County participated in federal food stamp program in May, receiving about $2.2 million for food, according to the state Department of Human Services. In Washington County, 26,450 people participated in the program, receiving just over $3 million.

"The best program I know of for alleviating hunger is SNAP, the food stamp program," said Lowell Grisham of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. "That does more than all the charities and churches and synagogues in the country combined. It's a very effective program, it's targeted and it simply works."

Grisham said groups who feed the hungry decried cuts to the program over the last two years.

"The people who want to cut food stamps, they might think they're doing something right, but they will cause hunger, deprivation and most of it will be on children and women," he said.

A coalition of churches in Fayetteville has been serving lunches every day for about a decade now. Grisham, said those who drop in are a cross section of the population, including in the summer a lot of kids whose primary feeding comes from free or reduced lunch programs during the school year.

"Now, we have at least one dependable hot meal every day for people who need it to come eat," he said.

Cayla Wilson, director of the Fayetteville Senior Center, said anyone 60-plus years old who is unable to prepare a meal or get food for himself can have meals delivered five days a week through the Meals On Wheels program. Frozen meals are delivered for weekend use.

"I think if you live alone, and you don't cook for yourself, you can quickly become malnourished," Wilson said. "A lot of the time they don't have anyone. We're the main contact point for a lot of these seniors. We check on them to make sure they're OK."

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 5 percent to 11 percent of seniors in Benton, Carroll and Washington counties live in poverty.

Meals on Wheels cost $3 per day, but about half the recipients are low-income and qualify to receive free meals through Elderchoices, a program that provides non-medical support services to the home-bound elderly. Wilson said her Meals On Wheels group feeds about 105 people per day in the Fayetteville area.

Wilson said the program depends on local donations to pay for food, preparation and delivery because meals cost more to prepare than the $3 charge.

Food assistance is available but Garner said she's found there's a segment of the population who won't take advantage of programs because of the stigma long associated with welfare.

About 3 percent to 5 percent of seniors in the region receive food stamps, according to the state Department of Human Services. That compares to 5.6 percent statewide. Officials estimate less than half of all eligible seniors receive food stamps.

Merlin Augustine, founder of the all-volunteer M&N Augustine Foundation based in Fayetteville, gave as an example a widowed Greenland grandmother living on a meager fixed income who took in her three small grandchildren after her daughter went to prison for methamphetamine.

"Rather than let her grandchildren go into foster care, this grandmother who was getting $563 a month in Social Security benefits, she took those three grandchildren and she's raising them herself on $563 a month," Augustine said.

"One of the things we've learned in the foundation is there's an element of people that's got so much damn pride they won't let you know that they're hungry or they won't go out and get food stamps."

During the recession, the number of people experiencing food insecurity increased and hasn't dropped to pre-recession levels, people who feed the needy locally said.

Garner said those with not enough food also include college grads, single parents, veterans, former mid-management employees who haven't found jobs after the recession, retirees out of savings and the medically challenged.

"The main thing is we have such a gap in economics. We've got so many folks that are just living hand-to-mouth and any little thing that happens is devastating to their economy," Garner said.

Wolf agreed many families in the region are still trying to get back on their feet from the financial hit they took in the recession that started in 2008.

"Quite frankly, there are a lot of people that are back to work, but they are what we call underemployed so they're paying their rent or their mortgage and buying gas and the things we all do but for less money than they were making before," Wolf said.

"We still have a lot of people in line because they're working -- in fact most of them are working -- but they can't make it."

Solutions have to involve long-term economic security, not just a meal for today, according to Laura Kellams, with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. At the policy level, those may include a minimum wage increase, which is being considered in Arkansas, or tax cuts targeted to low-income families, such as an earned income tax credit at the state level in addition to the federal tax credit.

Augustine said none of the foundation's clients are likely hungry in the literal sense because they're resourceful. Clients are most often the working poor who have hit a rough patch and can't make ends meet.

"You'd be surprised how many people you see every day who work hard but because of a sick child or a miscalculation on finances, just anything, they need a bump up."

NW News on 07/13/2014

Print Headline: Hunger More Than Empty Stomachs

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