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Nonprofit gleans hope, food, for the state's hungry citizens

by Cary Jenkins | December 13, 2020 at 3:19 a.m.
Alliance Board President Cynthia Edwards on 11/20/2020 at Western Hills Park for HP Volunteer Story (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Sometimes when a farmer harvests a crop, produce is left in the field. It might be because it wasn't ready to be harvested, just got missed or wasn't quite perfect. To gather what is left behind is called gleaning.

The Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance uses gleaning as one of its many programs to reduce hunger through the Arkansas Gleaning Project. It is also how Cynthia Edwards, out-going board president of the alliance, first became familiar with the non-profit.

"I became active with the alliance as they were starting the gleaning program," says Edwards, who is also the state's deputy director of agriculture. "They approached me to help connect them with farmers who might be interested in working with the gleaning program."

The program brings in volunteers to farm fields and to the alliance's 13 gardens spread across five counties to collect what was not harvested. The alliance's Watermelon Crawl is one annual gleaning event that provides fun for the volunteers with live music, watermelon-eating contests and picking watermelons and loading them for transport. Another is Turnip for Hunger, which has volunteers help harvest turnips.

A recent blog post on the alliance's website noted the success of this year's harvests. "...the Alliance's Arkansas Gleaning Project has gleaned over 219,000 pounds of fresh produce in 2020 -- all through the hard work of our gardening team, Full Circle FarmCorps service members and 277 amazing volunteers. This is equivalent to about 183,307 meals for Arkansans in need."

"I thought it was a program that made sense for all involved," says Edwards about gleaning. "It helped feed people and prevented good food from going to waste. It's always been sad and ironic to me that we live in a state where agriculture is the largest industry, and we have some of the best and most dedicated farmers in the world, yet many Arkansans go to bed hungry each night."

Edwards joined the alliance board in 2015. "I was interested in being part of the alliance because it's the only statewide hunger relief agency. I like its comprehensive multi-prong approach."

In addition to the gleaning projects, the alliance has a charitable and emergency food network through the six food banks including the Arkansas Foodbank in Little Rock. The alliance partners with Share Our Strength for the No Kid Hungry campaign which includes school breakfasts, after-school and summer-meal programs and Cooking Matters, teaching families how to make low-cost nutritious meals. It also works with the AR Beef Project and has Food Assistance Resources and Senior Hunger programs.

There are different ways to address the problem of hunger, says Edwards, and the alliance takes several different avenues to address it with cooperative relationships with various organizations, "through all the city partners, state partners, nonprofits -- it just takes a lot of outreach."

Advocacy is also a big part of the alliance's work. "Kathy is a powerhouse when it comes to working with our state legislature in particular," says Edwards, about executive director Kathy Webb. "It [the alliance] works with all levels of government. The advocacy recently resulted in funding through the CARES Act Steering Committee for $1.7 million for meals for food banks across the state."

With covid-19, food insecurity for Arkansans has increased, says Edwards. "Before the pandemic, our food insecurity rates had fallen a little bit to pre-recession levels of about 17%. Since March that has gone up to about 22.50%. That's even higher for children."

She explains that earlier in the pandemic, No Kid Hungry's teamwork resulted in the expansion of school nutrition waivers so Arkansas children could get the meals they needed despite school closures. "The pandemic hasn't slowed down the alliance team one bit," she says. "They pivoted their programs rapidly and effectively, and haven't missed a beat."

On Jan. 9, the alliance will host Turnip for Hunger. Volunteers will be needed to harvest turnips from the alliance's Western Hills Garden at Little Rock's Western Hills Park. The alliance has worked it out so that contact for volunteers is at a minimum. They will do it the same way they gleaned watermelons last summer, Edwards says. Volunteers will make a reservation for a certain time and will work in shifts. Temperatures will be taken and contact forms will be filled out. Then the volunteers will be assigned rows so that they are spaced out. Edwards says, "It's restrictive, but a safe activity."

For more information about Turnip for Hunger and other programs of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, email [email protected]

org or visit their website at www.arhungeralliance.org.

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