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Nearly one-fifth of Arkansans often don't know how they'll get their next meal, according to a recent report from Hunger Free America.

Thousands of them are working people. About 13.5 percent of the state's working population -- 165,659 -- is considered "food insecure," according to the report. That's fourth-highest among the 50 states and Washington, D.C. In Louisiana and Mississippi, that percentage is 14, and in New Mexico it's 15.3.

The report uses data reported to the U.S. Census through the Food Security Supplement of the Current Population Survey from 2014-2016. Nationwide, 15,113,314 employed adults were in the food-insecure category, or 10.3 percent of the working adult population.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

The economic condition is hazardous to health, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit group that coordinates food banks across the country. Often, people must choose between food and health services, such as medicine. Hunger is often a result, which can impede children's growth.

The nonprofit organization recommends addressing causes of poverty, unemployment, underemployment and limited access to nutritious foods to aid the hungry.

Arkansas is a high poverty state, but its rate of poverty and that of the nation decreased from 2015 to 2016, according to U.S. Census American Community Survey's one-year estimates. The state's poverty rate was 17.2 percent in 2016, down from 19.1 percent in 2015. Arkansas was 44th among states and Washington, D.C., and above the national average of 14 percent.

Officials attributed the improvement to drops in the state's unemployment rate to record lows, but the kind of job a person has can make a difference when it comes to rising out of poverty and attaining adequate food, experts say.

Arkansas' large rural population may explain the state's worsening performance, said Gregory Hamilton, senior research economist at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Arkansas Economic Development Institute.

Agriculture doesn't offer wages as high as those for specialized industry jobs or manufacturing, which have decreased in Arkansas, Hamilton said.

The Hunger Free America report found that states with minimum wages above $10 per hour have lower rates of people without adequate food -- 9.3 percent -- than states with minimum wages of $7.25 per hour or less -- 10.3 percent. But Arkansas was not factored into that analysis; its minimum wage is $8.50 per hour.

Hamilton and Arkansas Foodbank chief executive Rhonda Sanders said Arkansas needs to attract more higher-paying jobs and ensure residents are qualified to hold them. They noted efforts to attract more technology jobs and teach computer coding to Arkansas children.

Arkansas received $896 million in federal food assistance in fiscal 2016, about $303.53 per person, 19th-most in the country.

In more urban areas, many food pantry patrons also work.

Most of the Arkansas Foodbank's clientele have had a job or someone in the family has had a job within the past year, about 61 percent, Sanders said, citing a report compiled by the food bank in 2014. But 66 percent of client households, the "most-employed person" is not currently working, according to the report. That person is actively looking for a job in only 29 percent of households.

Most of the people not seeking work are retired, disabled or in poor health, the report states.

"These are not people choosing not to work," Sanders said. "They're just not making enough to where they can meet all of their needs."

People need to make more than $10 per hour to take care of a household of two or three people, she said.

LaWanda Robinson works 35 hours a week for $10 an hour at a gas station in North Little Rock. That provides her about $18,000 per year to support her and her 10-year-old daughter. She doesn't receive child support. She says she tried to apply for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program funds, commonly known as food stamps, but was told she wasn't eligible.

So Robinson, 37, goes to food pantries numerous times each year.

"I mean, it's hard," she said Thursday before she picked up a box of nonperishables and a box of cold meats and dairy products from the pantry at Church at Rock Creek in Little Rock.

Robinson dropped out of high school and spent years wasting time with the wrong crowds, she said.

"It took me getting pregnant to realize there was more to life than hanging out," she said.

Now her daughter is an avid reader in her school's gifted and talented program, and Robinson wants to give her everything she needs.

She also wants to earn a high school equivalency diploma and advance her career, but the courses to do so cost money, she said. She has asked to work more hours, but she doesn't always get as many as she'd like.

Jeanetta Townsend, 34, earns $12 an hour working 30 hours a week as an in-home care nurse. That's about $19,000 a year to support her and her four children, but Townsend said she doesn't feel comfortable working too many more hours because of the time she needs to spend at home with her kids.

Like Robinson, she doesn't receive child support and often goes to the pantry at Church at Rock Creek.

"It does help a lot," she said.

In 2014, the Arkansas Foodbank gathered information about its clients. The agency distributes food to pantries, which set their own parameters on who can use their services.

About 12.6 percent of those patrons had some college or a two-year degree and 5 percent had a four-year degree. About 25.8 percent did not graduate from high school or earn a high school equivalency diploma. Another 41.4 percent had only a high school diploma.

Most patrons were white, and 24.1 percent were 30- 49 years old. The majority, 42 percent, were also in households of two to three people.

Demographic statistics were fairly similar for the River Valley Regional Food Bank in Fort Smith in 2014. But at that food bank, 48 percent of households had someone working in the past year.

While many adults may lack adequate food, the prospects for children have improved in recent years in Arkansas, said Patty Barker, director for the Arkansas No Kid Hungry campaign.

Programs at schools and other after-school centers provide food to children who qualify to ensure that they don't miss meals. The number of Arkansas children at risk of missing meals dropped from 201,820 in 2015 to about 176,000 in 2017, Barker said.

NW News on 01/15/2018

Print Headline: State's working poor face hunger

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