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story.lead_photo.caption The Sentinel-Record/Richard Rasmussen HELPING HANDS: From left, volunteers with the Miss Victorious Pageant, Emma Walker, Sevanna Jennings, Serenity Hancock, Abigail Hendrick and Mary Taylor, pack food boxes at Project HOPE Food Bank Tuesday.

For many students, summer means days at the lake and lazy afternoons. But for others, summer means hunger pangs from an empty stomach.

Since 2009, the nonprofit Project HOPE Food Bank has worked to alleviate the burden of hunger for as many students and families as possible.

"Hunger is rampant, especially among kids. A lot of times, hunger especially over the summer, is almost instantaneous. They go from having school meals twice a day to limited resources," Becky Chote, assistant director of the food bank, said Tuesday.

"So it's important to be able to reach out to the kids and make a difference. We have several groups that are coming together over the summer to help families make a difference because it's all about the health and well being of the child."

Summer is an especially difficult time for students to utilize food services because they have little or no access to their schools, and therefore little or no access to the food bank.

"During the summer it is very important because more families are visiting area pantries, which is really the only way that we have access to the kids over the summer. That's why the School Backpack Program works, because we have access to the kids. We don't have to rely on the families to show up to a pantry," Chote said.

During the school year, the food bank partners with 11 school districts to provide food to an estimated 700 students each week identified by counselors, teachers and caseworkers through the School Backpack Program.

Most backpacks provide two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners and snacks when available, and go to students in the seventh grade or younger.

"Sometimes they even go so far as to pack food for younger siblings that have not reached school-age yet. It's just an amazing partnership that has developed through this program," Chote said.

"The School Backpack Program seeks to provide nutrition to food insecure children in an effort to promote health and well-being and opportunity for success equal to their well-fed counterparts. The goal of Project HOPE Food Bank's School Backpack Program is to close the nutritional gaps caused by food insecurity. For children, the nutritional gaps often arise on the weekends when school meals are not available," Project HOPE Food Bank Executive Director Ted Thompson said.

The program started in 2015. In 2019, the bank has distributed close to 50,000 pounds of food, provided 15,000 backpacks and 12,500 healthy after-school snacks to students, according to statistics provided by Thompson.

"We estimate over 120,000 pounds of food will be distributed this year to the school districts we serve. We already serve 11 school districts, but Magnet Cove and Harmony Grove School Districts have recently applied for the program," he said.

Focus is put onto providing students with healthy foods, so vegetables, fruits and other nutritious goods are subsidized at a higher rate. This is especially important for children, Chote said.

"They always say, 'Well, that child's obese.' And why is he obese? It's usually because they've had to buy foods they can afford that are less quality nutritionally, and maybe that's all they get," she said.

The nutrition that the program provides is costly, though.

"The Backpack Program is horribly expensive. It's a challenge to raise that kind of money because everything's got to be light enough, nutritious enough, and kids have to be able to carry it along with their school books," Chote said.

The bank covers approximately 50 percent of the cost of food, Thompson said. The bank then partners each school with a nonprofit or group to cover the remaining cost. This allows schools and children to receive the food at no cost.

The bank also provides food at subsidized costs to services including Meals on Wheels, the Area Agency on Aging, the Hot Springs YMCA, Jackson House, The Salvation Army, Samaritan Ministries, cancer centers, crisis centers, and homeless shelters.

Project HOPE Food Bank is able to provide this service thanks to privately funded and granted subsidies from organizations such as the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, Blue & You for a Healthier Arkansas, Weyerhaeuser and the Arkansas Community Foundation.

"Basically what we do here is we buy large lots of food, and we use grants and donations to subsidize the price of it, so that way we can offer it to agencies for less than what we paid for it," Chote said.

So far in 2019, Project HOPE Food Bank has provided a $25,883 subsidy on its wholesale purchases of $49,626, Thompson said.

The subsidy in 2019 has been provided by grants from Weyerhaeuser for $6,000 and the Arkansas Community Foundation for $4,000, with the remaining $1,400 from individual donors and funds from the organization's general donation fund, Thompson said.

In order to do keep the operation cost effective and helpful, overhead costs to run the bank must be low.

The bank operates out of a building donated by Jim Smith. All of the bank's equipment, including the truck, van, refrigerators, freezers, lifts and power jacks are debt free and have been obtained through grants, he said.

Overall in 2018, Thompson told The Sentinel-Record that nearly a million pounds of food were distributed through the food bank to 45 agencies across seven counties, 50,000 households were assisted, and the bank currently has over 100 different foods stocked, including shelf stable milk.

"The backbone of improving somebody's skill level or output is good nutrition, whether you're trying to work with them to rehab them or to change a child's outlook, good nutrition is always key," Chote said.

"But we could not do it without our volunteers. They are the backbone of our whole organization."

The bank is open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and operated by around 25 regular weekly volunteers and Chote.

Though summer is a difficult time for the hungry, Chote said she was optimistic about the assistance the bank attempts to provide.

"We really have a wonderful community that really stands behind us, and they make a world of difference. Especially in the summer we have a lot of groups volunteer. It just seems like so many have a lot of needs, so we are trying to step up."

Local on 06/12/2019

Print Headline: Project HOPE Food Bank strives to alleviate summertime hunger

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