An Alma-based child development group expects to provide about 50,000 lunches this summer to kids in western and northwest Arkansas.
Western Arkansas Child Development began feeding hungry families in 2009, with Thanksgiving Day Dinner boxes. Last year, about 150 volunteers helped prepare 475 meals. Meals were either picked up, eaten at the facility or delivered by volunteers.
In 2014, 500 Christmas food boxes were prepared for pick up, and weekend food boxes are sent home with WACD families as food is available.
But WACD began its biggest food program, Feeding the Hungry, three years ago. The program will be held this summer from June 8 to July 31.
Malinda McSpadden’s parents Wayne and Jeanie Thompson started Western Arkansas Child Development in 1981 with one early childhood education center. WACD has expanded to include a total of five centers in Alma, Van Buren, Springdale, Gentry and Rogers.
Feeding hungry families was a natural progression for the group, McSpadden said.
"We have always fed the families of the children we serve," McSpadden said. "Nothing formally, always just behind the scenes."
McSpadden heads the Feeding the Hungry program, and said the idea for the program was sparked by a conversation held in November 2008 during an outing with her family to volunteer at the Gospel Rescue Mission in Van Buren.
They began with the Thanksgiving boxes, but started providing summer meals for kids at a couple of feeding sites in 2013 after more federal money for such programs became available.
"People have been doing summer feeding programs forever - a meals-on-wheels kind of thing - and we just decided to try it one summer," McSpadden said.
In 2014, the program expanded to 16 summer feeding sites, serving 13,530 meals to children and at least another 382 meals to adults, McSpadden said.
This summer the program will have at least 43 feeding sites in northwest and western Arkansas.
"I’ll say that we’ll serve 50,000 meals this summer. We did 14,000 last year, and we didn’t even know what we were doing," McSpadden said.
McSpadden has ordered 15,000 logo meal bags to start the summer, she said.
Sites are chosen for their proximity to areas where there is the greatest need, McSpadden said.
"That’s the deal with feeding the hungry," McSpadden said. "You’re not going to go somewhere far away from your home to access service if you don’t have money, because you also don’t know how to do that. Our systems that serve people living in poverty are not set up for people living in poverty."
McSpadden noted that families living below the poverty level without the means to purchase enough food are not going to have a car or money for gas to get to food centers, either.
"You can’t drive from Chester to Alma Aquatic Park (one of last year’s WACD food sites) if you don’t have money for food, because you don’t have money for fuel. That’s why we take food to kids," McSpadden said.
At 19.7 percent, Arkansas ranks among the highest in the nation in household food insecurity, according to the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and national Gallup polls. Arkansas ranked first in 2009.
In Crawford County, the food insecurity rate in 2013 was 17.6 percent, with 10,890 food insecure people, according to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap data. And 27 percent of Arkansas households with children are food insecure, according to Feeding America.
As part of an informal social study, McSpadden and a few of her crew attempted to access services that are targeted for people living in poverty. Most of the services were difficult or impossible to access without transportation or money, she said.
Accessing food services is no different, McSpadden said.
"There was a young woman working here, she had to take off a day from work to renew the paperwork for her food stamps. She had to miss a day from her job, the job I gave her, to go to the office and fill out the paperwork, because they don’t make appointments after 3 p.m. Now why, with today’s technology, couldn’t they fax the paperwork here to the office and we could scan it and send it back? I could do it in 3 minutes," McSpadden said. "We’re encouraging people not to work."
Whether a poverty situation is circumstantial or generational, people "don’t want to be there," McSpadden said.
Meals served are made up of prepackaged food from vendors, McSpadden said. Meals usually contain a sandwich, a fruit and veggie or two fruits, and milk. If extra protein is needed, cheese or yogurt is added.
Prepackaged foods are easier to store and makes it easier to feed more kids, McSpadden said.
"If we were preparing hot meals in a kitchen, we would be serving 200 kids rather than 13,000 to 14,000," she said.
Vendors ship the food to the Alma Intermediate School kitchen, where it is inventoried and organized.
Food is bagged on a daily basis, and volunteers - in vans, trucks and SUVs - pick up the meals and deliver them either directly to feeding sites or to a WACD center, and then to feeding sites. About 314 different volunteers helped with last year’s efforts, McSpadden said.
"I think if we’re really going to make a difference and help people get out of poverty, we have to meet their needs while they’re in poverty," McSpadden said.