Ecumenical Food Pantry aims to keep feeding the hungry in hard times
By JOEL PHELPS | The Arkadelphian
As the hot afternoon sun beams outside Arkadelphia’s First United Methodist Church, more than two dozen volunteers form an assembly line to move scores of boxes from the kitchen pantry to yet more volunteers working beneath an awning outside the church. It’s nearing 3 p.m., and vehicles line North 8th Street for blocks, the families inside them waiting patiently to receive a box full of food.
They’ve been waiting here since noon.
Once the courthouse bell blares its 3 o’clock chime, the volunteers begin pushing the food boxes through open car windows, the occupants inside gratefully accepting before driving off. The long line of cars moves slowly forward as volunteers continue hauling out carts full of more food boxes. The car line will remain steady and long for the next two and a half hours, when the pantry distribution ends. On this particular Tuesday, 340 local families will receive a box of food.
“Praise the Lord!” one passenger exclaims as a volunteer hands her a box of food. She smiles and claps as the driver pulls away from the church pantry. Several cars behind, meanwhile, a young couple arrives at the first of two pick-up points and waits for produce. A volunteer notices that a toddler in the back seat appears hot, so she tries to provide some shade, using herself to block the sun. Another volunteer toting a box emerges from the church and hands the youngster a popsicle to make the sweltering wait a little more bearable.
Hunger hits home
There are an estimated 5,000 Clark County residents who battle hunger, according to Cindy Jackson, head volunteer of the Clark County Ecumenical Food Pantry. And, she said, that number appears to be growing.
“There are many people who might have a box of macaroni in their cupboard today, and they don’t know what they are going to eat tomorrow,” she said. The pantry serves an average of 302 families on the third Tuesday of each month, a number that has doubled since the Covid-19 pandemic. “Each month we’re serving more and more people,” Jackson said. Prior to the pandemic the pantry fed an average of 165 families each month.
Statistically, those who are food-deprived are senior citizens or children, Jackson said, adding that Arkansas ranks second in the U.S. for food insecurity, below only Mississippi. The people who line up along 8th Street come from all walks of life. Some vehicles even displayed license plates from one of the two local universities. “There was a big upswing [of more hungry people] in the middle class during Covid,” Jackson said. “Even educators are among those we serve.”
Another of the head volunteers, William Durand, blames inflation for the hunger. “People don’t have money to buy gas, food and medications,” Durand said, “but their salaries are not going up.”
So far in 2022 the pantry has given 41.5 tons of food to 2,758 local families (7,012 people), compared to 42.9 tons of food distributed in all of 2021 to 3,071 families (7,522 people). Most of the food comes from the Arkansas Foodbank, while other contributors include Walmart donations and Hunters Feeding the Hungry.
Durand said the church is running out of space to keep all the food, and eventually the pantry will need to expand and, likely, erect a building solely for the purpose of distributing food.
How the food pantry operates
Feeding so many hungry mouths takes manpower. The Clark County Ecumenical Food Pantry consists of about 150 volunteers from at least nine area churches, as well as student groups from both Henderson State and Ouachita Baptist universities. On this particular Tuesday, a pair of Mormon elders showed up and pledged their assistance to the pantry for future dates.
The work begins well before the drive-through pantry is organized. The Arkansas Foodbank makes a truck delivery on the first Tuesday of each month. Volunteers unload the truck, then organize and pack away the items into the church’s pantry, filling shelves and freezers with food. On the morning of each month’s third Tuesday, when the food is distributed, volunteers reconvene at the church to start filling boxes with food. The goal is to pack each box with seven cans of fruits and vegetables, as well as soups, a meat, cereal, rice and beans.
To date, the food pantry has not had to turn away one hungry mouth. The later the afternoon grows, however, the fewer items those waiting in line will receive. “We’ve never run out of food, but the last people might not get as much food,” Jackson said. The pantry’s biggest need isn’t more volunteers or monetary donations; it’s food, because the Foodbank is unable to access certain staples such as peanut butter, meat or bread (the supply varies each month).
The Ecumenical Food Pantry was incorporated in 2014 as an off-chute of the Clark County Charitable Health Service, which was formed as a product of the 2007 Clark County Strategic Plan and helped offset medical costs for local residents. That nonprofit organization dissolved after the Affordable Care Act was passed. Jackson, who headed that nonprofit organization, said area churches determined that another food pantry was the community’s biggest need, and seven churches committed to the project. Two more have since joined forces.