WORDS Liesel Schmidt
IMAGES courtesy River Valley Regional Food Bank
Hunger is an increasing concern in this country, as more and more families face financial hardship and struggle to put food on the table. Fortunately, we as a nation are becoming more aware of this issue; and many programs have been set up to provide assistance to those in need.
Particularly hard times for those less fortunate are times of national economic crisis, when unmet needs become even more of an issue. These are also the times when mercy is at its height: food pantries redouble their efforts to collect and distribute food items and meals, soup kitchens beef-up their volunteer staff in preparation for extra mouths to feed, and community-wide initiatives are set in motion to address the problem.
The battle could not be so well-fought without organizations like the River Valley Regional Food Bank, whose mission of feeding the hungry began in 1986. Begun as a small operation, the food bank now provides service to 166 member pantry agencies throughout eight counties in the Arkansas River Valley. The River Valley Regional Food Bank is a member of the Feeding America network as well as a member of the United Way of Fort Smith Area.
As one of six Feeding America food banks in the state of Arkansas, River Valley Regional Food Bank, like its five counterparts, works in conjunction with Feeding America and the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance in Little Rock. “We are a not-for-profit agency whose mission is specifically to alleviate hunger in Arkansas’s River Valley,” says Director Tracy Engel. “We are responsible for the acquisition and distribution of nutritious food and other items to the public through a broad network of private not-for-profit member agencies, and we provide this service to those in need. Our programs enable improved service to 166 member agencies and the residents they serve.”
To put it in perspective, River Valley Regional Food Bank estimates that it serves approximately 88,000 residents monthly, which roughly translates to 1,056,000 people a year. That’s more than a million people who depend on them annually, more than a million mouths to feed and hungry bellies to fill. The numbers are staggering, but the food bank has been facing the crisis head-on for thirty-five years. In fact, they’ve served more than 12 million people over the course of those three decades—and the numbers seem to rise rather than fall.
That rise in need is a challenge, as it is for food banks around the country—particularly over the past eighteen months. “The primary challenge we seem to face is keeping up with demand for service,” says Marketing and Development Director Justin Bates. “In 2020, we saw nearly a sixty percent increase in the demand for our services, due to the pandemic. That demand has carried over into 2021, and we have not really seen any changes in demand going into 2022.”
In fact, COVID has caused multiple complications to life: loss of jobs, decreases in income…all of which have the trickle-down effect of making food insecurity even more of an issue in homes throughout America. “COVID-19 has caused a huge surge in the need for food assistance, particularly in children,” says Justin. “Due to COVID-19, one in six Americans, and one in four children are in need of food—and this is an increase of nearly fifty percent from 2019.”
Unfortunately, the challenge doesn’t stop there. “The pandemic has also caused us to limit or pause volunteer opportunities with the food bank,” Engel notes. “We rely heavily on volunteers to help us sort product, pack boxes, and help us distribute food, but many of those activities are now having to be done by our staff, at least until the pandemic resolves.”
Those faithful staff have been crucial in keeping the food bank running, as have the member pantry agencies that River Valley Regional Food Bank works with. “We all work very hard to distribute as much food as we can to our community. Our small staff of ten employees has worked on site every day during the pandemic, on the front lines, while working long hours to serve those in need,” Tracy says.
While the need is great, the food bank has risen to meet whatever needs arise, no matter how insurmountable the task may seem. “In 2019, which included the historic flooding in the area, the food bank distributed more than 11 million pounds of food, which was up from the seven million pounds distributed in 2018,” Tracy says. “In 2020, we distributed a record-breaking 24 million pounds. The demand for service has only increased with the pandemic.”
More need translates to other things—namely, greater operating costs. “As we continue to acquire food and other necessary items, we’re distributing more food and picking up more food than a typical year,” Tracy explains. “As a result of the pandemic, we’ve seen an increase in expenses on things like freight charges, oil changes, fuel, insurance, tag renewals, inspections, and maintenance charges.”
All the expenses, all the costs that keep the inner workings of the organization running and the pantries filled with food to give to those who so desperately need it, are reliant on the donations of corporations and individuals as well as grants. “We aren’t federally funded, so we rely on the generosity of our donors,” says Tracy. “Every dollar donated to the River Valley Regional Food Bank helps us secure and distribute ten meals to people facing hunger. Through our partnerships and donation programs, we’re able to stretch your dollar to make the biggest impact on hungry families in the River Valley.”
For those in need the food bank makes their services readily available by providing food and other essential items to member pantry agencies in their network. Residents in need of assistance may visit the pantry locator at rvrfoodbank.org. The food bank also provides pop-up pantries as well as special events like veterans’ giveaways. They also distribute USDA commodities at their South Zero Street location in Fort Smith on the third Tuesday of every month.
Day after day, week after week, year after year, food banks like River Valley Regional keep charging ahead, steadfastly carrying out the mission they know is so important. “We, and others like us, help address food disparities in the community and provide food assistance to hungry families in the River Valley,” says Tracy. “Without the food bank and our partnering agencies, food would be out of reach for the people who need it the most.”
At the end of the day, it is the people that matter—the people they serve, the people who would be lost in a struggle that should never be. For these people, River Valley Regional makes all the difference in the world. They’re living proof that lives can be changed, one meal at a time.
For more information about volunteer opportunities and donations, call 479.785.0582 or visit rvrFoodBank.org.