In a metal building on Industrial Road in Van Buren, Steve Davis, director of IMPACT, which stands for “Meals Provided at Critical Times,” reaches into a big, brown grocery sack and carefully pulls out the contents. The sack is one of 250 that line long tables in this building that houses the program to help hungry students and their families.
Davis handles the food items gently, the same way teenagers do who volunteer at the Food Bank and whose families have needed the occasional help of a food pantry. Food is precious.
The sack’s contents include a jar of peanut butter; three packages each of Honey Graham Toasters and Ramen Noodles; a box each of macaroni and cheese, pasta dinner, stuffing, and pancake mix; a bag of dry pinto beans and of instant mashed potatoes; canned green beans, corn, tuna, and peaches; and pancake syrup.
“We don’t want to replace the backpack program that is conducted by the Community Services Clearinghouse,” Davis says. “We just want to supplement it.”
The Community Services Clearinghouse, located in Fort Smith, provides a bag of healthy snacks for nearly 2,400 children in 142 schools in seven counties to help tide them over during weekends when there is a lack of food at home.
IMPACT began in 2016 with the goal of providing nutritious food for long, holiday school breaks to students from food-insecure homes who receive the Clearinghouse snack foods.
“We just kind of blossomed from there, and now we help those students with a bag of groceries once a month except for July and August,” Davis says. “The Food Bank makes this possible.”
Supporters of IMPACT raise funds with events including “A Night at the Ball,” an annual father-daughter dance for girls in kindergarten through fifth grade.
A former principal of the Van Buren School District’s alternative learning facility, Davis serves as attendance administrator in addition to his IMPACT role. He visits the homes of students throughout the district who are missing school or having problems.
He sees the need for food.
“I was raised in a one-room shack with an outhouse, but we managed, kept it clean, and had food,” Davis says. “Today, we see worse, and some of it is neglect. These are some of the kids we are helping. It’s making a difference.”
Davis notes that the gift of food is also helping with the schools’ relations with parents.
“When you hand someone a sack of groceries, and next week there’s an issue concerning their child … they know I’m the one who handed them groceries,” he says. “They are more willing to talk about things.”
Nearly 60 school buses transport students to Van Buren’s 12 schools. Rural townships dot the 110-square-mile district that stretches nearly to Cedarville, Alma and Kibler. The counties in America with the highest food-insecurity are mostly rural. Challenges faced by people in rural areas include fewer grocery stores or food pantries, lower-wage jobs and higher unemployment.
“We just want to help everyone have the right start,” Angela Miranda, Davis’ assistant, says. “Whatever we give them (the children), their parents don’t have to buy. We have to remember, it’s not the kids’ fault. And it’s not always the parents’ fault, either.”
IMPACT’s distribution of food occurs monthly on a Friday from 3-5 p.m. and the next day from noon to 2 p.m. School counselors maintain the list of recipients, keeping watch for students who may need the food and obtaining parental permission.
“The parents come in with their kids,” Davis says. “It’s a friendly thing. Our goal is to provide food. We’re not here to interrogate.”
Miranda adds, “We try to make it as painless as possible. The kids come in and they’re happy. The little ones want to carry their own bags.” Each child in a family receives one of the grocery bags.
Miranda notes that teachers observe the effect of hunger on students. “That’s why they provide snacks on test day,” she says. “They realize that students won’t be able to concentrate or have the energy to take the test if they’re hungry.”
Davis collects supplies from the Food Bank weekly. The Food Bank works to be a one-stop shop for its partner food pantries, youth programs, senior citizen centers and soup kitchens. In addition to the salvaged food it collects from grocers and distributors each day, the Food Bank purchases one and a half semi-trailer loads of canned goods monthly from brokers at below wholesale cost. One dollar donated to the Food Bank turns into six meals.
Reflecting on what she has learned in her first year with the IMPACT program, Miranda says, “I didn’t realize how big the hunger issue is. I think everyone needs to realize how serious it is.”
Luckily, the River Valley has a food bank, one of 200 across the nation that make up the Feeding America network. Feeding America provides corporate partnerships with grocers like Walmart. Citizens keep the Food Bank strong with donations through “Fight Hunger. Spark Change” and other campaigns. The result:
“We see children happy, thankful and glowing,” Miranda says of the students receiving the IMPACT food bags. “They are so thankful and so excited, it’s like Christmas.”
Contributions made to the “Fight Hunger. Spark Change” campaign at Walmart and Sam’s Club can have an important impact on the health of River Valley youth. By making a donation, or by purchasing one of the 267 products at Walmart and Sam’s Club, citizens can help provide the cost of a meal being donated to the Food Bank. “Fight Hunger. Spark Change” lasts through May 20.