A recent report found that Arkansas ranks the worst in the nation in food insecurity, and while Union County is reportedly faring better than some others, volunteers at local food pantries have noticed an increase in the local need this year.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture study released late last month found that 16.6% of Arkansas households experienced food insecurity last year, including 6.5% that experienced "very low food security," both higher rates than any of the other 49 states in the country.
According to Aspire Arkansas, a project of the nonprofit Arkansas Community Foundation, 15% of households in Union County experienced food insecurity in 2021, the latest year's data that's available.
Neighboring Columbia, Ouachita and Ashley counties each had higher food insecurity rates than Union County, while Calhoun and Bradley counties, also neighbors, had lower rates.
Major David Robinson at the Salvation Army said he's noticed a marked increase in need this year, which he said could be related to the loss of many food and monetary benefits that were expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"A lot of people lost some of their food stamps and stuff for a while with COVID coming to an end and the changeover. We had several families that lost their benefits," he said. "That caused a huge jump in our numbers as far as food boxes."
For a three or four month stretch, he said, the Salvation Army was handing out 1,300-1,800 food boxes monthly. The number of families picking up food boxes has dropped back down to a typical 750-850 a month in the past couple months, he said, but food is still going quickly.
"Our post office food drive that the post office puts on for us – usually that lasts us through Christmas, but this year it's already gone, and they raised more food this year than last year," Robinson said.
It's a similar story at the Interfaith Help Services (IHS) food pantry, said Joe Doyle, IHS board president.
"We have a lot of first time people coming in, particularly for utility assistance, but also food," he said this week. "It seems like some people have been knocked off government subsidy programs, so we're seeing more people."
More than 250,000 Medicaid beneficiaries had been removed from the rolls in Arkansas as of October, after normal – instead of COVID – Medicaid eligibility rules resumed in April, according to reporting by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Temporary pandemic-related SNAP benefit expansions also ended in March this year.
Robinson said so far this year, the Salvation Army has already fed 3,000 more people than they did last year, with over 64,000 meals having been served in the Murphy Red Shield Diner.
Looking ahead to Thursday, Robinson said he expects to surpass the 400 meals served last Thanksgiving.
"If it doesn't pour down rain, we hope to do more," he said.
But both food pantries will need the community's help if they want to continue operations at their current levels through the rest of the year, Robinson and Doyle said.
"We're going to send out a letter to our churches to advise them that we had some large donations but we've pretty much gone through that, and come next year, if we don't get more donations, we're going to have to start cutting back on our services," Doyle said.
In addition to its food pantry, which local residents may draw from monthly, the IHS also provides limited utility and emergency dental assistance.
Robinson said ever since the COVID pandemic, when the Salvation Army began offering to-go meals to prevent the virus's spread, the cost of giving has gone up.
"All our stuff is to-go that we serve; since COVID, nobody really wants to come in the building to sit, they want it to," he said. "Those paper products have really gone up, almost double what they were two years ago."
Currently, he said, the Salvation Army is in need of food donations, including everything from canned meats, pasta, rice, beans, peanut butter, jelly, macaroni cheese and tuna to stew, chili, Vienna sausages, Spaghetti-Os, canned soups and cereal.
"Anything like that," he said.
Both the Salvation Army and IHS also order food from the Arkansas Food Bank, which provides a discount to food pantries such as those.
"Money is probably the biggest thing. We can buy food through the Arkansas Food Bank less expensively than they can buy it at Wal-mart," Doyle said. "But people like to bring in donations from the house, and they're more than welcome to do that too... (We can use) any kind of canned goods, peanut butter and jelly."
The Salvation Army's annual Thanksgiving meal will be held this Thursday, Nov. 23, at the Murphy Red Shield Diner, 419 S. Madison, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Robinson said the nonprofit has gotten surprisingly few delivery requests, and urged those who want a meal delivered to call.
"We did over 120 deliveries last year, and we don't have near that many this year," he said. "And they can have more than one meal. If they want two meals apiece, we're happy to do that."
Volunteers to help serve, deliver and clean up after the meal are all still needed as well, Robinson said.
"Several come and stay an hour and then leave," he said. "Just jump in and help where you can."
The Salvation Army also kicked off its annual Red Kettle fundraising drive during Thursday's Downtown Holiday Lighting Ceremony. Robinson said local residents can sign up to ring the bell at registertoring.com.
HealthWorks and Planet Fitness are also hosting the Salvation Army's Angel Trees this year. Robinson said those that wish to "adopt" a child from one of the Angel Trees can do so by visiting either of the gyms, or at the Salvation Army office on Madison.
For more information about the Salvation Army's Thanksgiving meal or to volunteer, call 870-863-4830. For more on the IHS food pantry or other assistance, call St. Mary's Episcopal Church at 870-863-7064 or visit the Interfaith Help Services page on Facebook.