An area food pantry was awarded for its actions to fight hunger in Crawford County at the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance’s annual Hunger Action Breakfast Sept. 24.

Alma Community Outreach was one of 15 groups given a 2013 Acting Out Against Hunger award at the event, all recognized for outstanding service working against hunger in their communities, said director Eldon Mushrush.

"If you want to know what to do to set up a food bank and how to operate it, they said we’re the [best] example of that," Mushrush said. "I don’t know about that - we just do our job every day."

Gov. Mike Beebe was on hand at the event to recognize and extend his appreciation to those who dedicate themselves to feeding the hungry in the state.

Arkansas is ranked No. 5 in the top 20 states for food hardship in 2012 by the Food Research Action Center, with 28.2 percent - nearly one in three - households with children reporting they could not afford to buy food on a consistent basis.

Alma Community Outreach feeds about 1,300 families a month from around Crawford County, mostly outside Van Buren, said volunteer Rick Wilson.

Wilson and Mushrush are both retired Walmart store managers, and Wilson is jokingly called vice president of food distribution by Mushrush because he determines what and how much goes in each food box.

This year the food pantry has doubled its efforts to provide fresh produce to the families it helps feed. About 400,000 pounds of produce has been given out so far this year, compared to 200,000 this time last year, Wilson said.

"Now, every day we’re open we’re giving out fresh produce," Wilson said.

This is due in large part to two new trucks, particularly a 52-foot refrigerated container truck - purchased for the group by Kelly Properties in Fort Smith and United Way - which enables them to store pallets of cold merchandise, Wilson said.

Produce is delivered to the outreach once a week, Wilson said. Without storage, the amount of perishables that could be distributed was limited to what could be given out that same day, he said.

Now perishable items such as fruit and vegetables can be distributed throughout the week. This allows families who are fed by the outreach to get healthier, more balanced meals every day, Wilson said.

"They are really getting a much healthier box of food," Wilson said.

Alma Community Outreach is a faith-based non-profit organization, which operates with the help of volunteers from 17 different area churches, Wilson said.

"We operate strictly on donations from local churches and individuals," Wilson said.

Wilson is one of many who have logged 1,143 volunteer hours from January to the end of August this year helping out at the food bank, Mushrush said.

Each week a different church group volunteers to operate the pantry, which is open Monday, Thursday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon, Mushrush said. Volunteers box up food, take donations and serve the families who come for food, he said.

"The real selling part of our operation is that we have unity of 17 church organizations, meaning we all get along," Mushrush said, going on to explain that differences in beliefs are left at the door. "My motto is ‘We’re not here to judge; we’re here to serve,’ and that’s just what we do."

Alma Community Outreach is located at 117 Arkansas 162. For more information call (479) 414-9218 or visit the Alma Community Outreach Facebook page. Monetary donations can be sent to P.O. Box 1104 Alma, AR 72921.

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