When Arkansans realized how many hungry children were going without food during summer months, they decided to take action, said Joyce Hardy, campaign director for the state’s No Kid Hungry campaign.
Now, fewer children — including those from Faulkner County — are wondering where their next meal will come from.
“I think the need is probably declining because communities are becoming more aware and have decided to do something about it,” Hardy said.
Arkansas No Kid Hungry is a partnership between Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, government groups and Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending childhood hunger, according to a Share Our Strength news release in 2010. Arkansas started its campaign to end hunger about two years ago and created a five-year plan to end childhood hunger by 2015, according to the Alliance website.
“We’re going to end childhood hunger by 2015 because it’s really possible [and] because the programs are there,” Hardy said.
Outreach efforts to parents, churches and organizations seems to be paying off, said Abby Compton, field manager with No Kid Hungery at Share Our Strength.
Since last year, the number of meals served has grown exponentially in Faulkner County, Hardy said. Last year, sites through No Kids Hungry served 2,057 meals and no snacks in the county. Over the same time period this year, Faulkner County sites served 6,288 meals and 297 snacks — an increase of 206 percent.
Often people don’t think about places like Faulkner County having children who need food, Hardy said. Faulkner County tends to have higher employment and wage rates, yet 44.61 percent of children attending Conway Public Schools received free or reduced lunches in October 2011.
“Because people don’t see most of the poverty, they don’t think about some of the summer programs,” Hardy said.
Share Our Strength estimated that in Arkansas only 14 percent of children who received free or price-reduced lunches during the school year last year participate in the free summer meal programs too.
But about four weeks ago, a report by Feeding America revealed Arkansas had fallen from ranking fourth just last year to ninth this year in the number of children at risk of hunger nationwide. Officials cited efforts to match children at risk with food sources as a reason for the improvement.
While food banks and pantries report the need remains about the same from 2011, local officials for No Kid Hungry and a local pantry said they are seeing more food donations, more outreach efforts and more sites opening to give children free meals.
“When people hear about [the need] they want to do something about it,” Hardy said.
Despite improvements, childhood hunger remains a problem, Compton said. Families are among the top people to visit the food pantry at the Community Action Program for Central Arkansas, food pantry Coordinator Donald Caldwell said. Children come with their parents to get food from the pantry, he said.
Across the U.S., the number of children who are at risk for hunger dropped slightly, Compton said. Yet, that number is still 16.2 million, still too high, Compton said. In Arkansas, about 27.8 percent of children don’t know where they will get their next meal.
In 2009, Faulkner had 16,910 people who did not know where their next meal would come from. Among children, the rate of food “insecurity” was 25. 3 percent, or 6,480 children. In 2010, the rate of children at risk for hunger dipped to 23.2 percent, or 6,030, according to figures from Hardy.
To fight the hunger-tide, Arkansas No Kid Hungry opened more than 100 new sites statewide to feed children this year and last year statewide. That brings the total number of sites up to 606 and means that this year, 10,000 more children will be fed than the previous year, Hardy said.
Faulkner County is among seven counties — Faulkner, Benton, Washington, Lonoke, Saline, Garland and Crawford — the organized focused on improving this year. In those counties, about 160 new sites opened, Hardy said. Faulkner County went from six summer programs in 2011 to 11 programs this year.
New churches and other organizations agreed to set up summer feeding sites. Some organizations have decided to transition into after-school sites as soon as school begins this August, Hardy said.
People are interested in helping children find ways to stay fed and healthy, Hardy and Compton said.
“This is a time when we are really focusing on children and making sure they have what they need to succeed,” Compton said.