Project HOPE Food Bank may be one of the "best-kept secrets" in Garland County, but it helps provide thousands of meals for those less fortunate in the Hot Springs area.
When the food bank opened in 2009, it distributed approximately 15,000 pounds of food a month, and it now provides an average of 100,000 pounds of food each month.
"We're up to close to 100,000 pounds a month -- some months way over that -- but on average about 100,000 pounds, and that's on the volunteer workforce and four hours a day, four days a week," Becky Choate, the food bank's assistant director, said. "So that's a lot going on. We're always a real busy place, but we always have a load of fun."
The COVID-19 pandemic brought many challenges for the food bank. Not only was there an increase in the amount of food requested, but food prices skyrocketed. According to an email from Choate, prices for many "kitchen staples" have seen an increase of 187% since 2020.
Some of the items listed include a 12-count case of peanut butter (increased from $11.99 to $26.90), a 12-count case of oatmeal ($15.82-$25.86), a 24-count case of canned chicken ($17.62-$33.94), and a 24-count case of macaroni and cheese ($6.89-$12.94).
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"We buy food by the truckload, and we take our grants and our donations, and we subsidize the price of it," Choate said. "So we offer it to agencies for less than what we pay for it, but we can get a much better price on products buying it by the full truckload as opposed to running out to Walmart and getting a jar or a can."
At the start of the year, the food bank was struck with a change in how the food supplies were being shipped, leading to the organization obtaining a new storage building.
"Our food brokers only wanted to send full truckloads, and after you buy a full truckload of mac and cheese or some product like that, you don't have enough room," she said. "So we started off the new year, raising money to redo this building. Jim Smith donated the building, but we took the sheeting off (and) applied the insulation."
The new building gave the food bank the chance to purchase food when it was available, not just when it was needed.
"This allowed us to buy food when it was available and when it was affordable because we were missing so many different opportunities to get food," Choate said. "So this was how we started off the year. It was a challenge raising enough money to be able to (make the updates to the building). We had to put in heat and air because food has to be climate controlled. You can't let it get too hot or too cold, but just to maintain the good steady temperature."
Choate said about 20% of the facility's distribution goes to school backpack programs.
"It's important to make sure that they have the nutrition they need to learn and to be a part of it all," she said. "We do feeding programs. We work with children's homes. We work with feeding programs, crisis centers, just all kinds of people -- all of them nonprofits."
One of the largest fundraising events for the food bank is Ice on Ice, which netted Project HOPE $6,000 this year.
"We would not have survived this if it was not for community support and programs like the Ice on Ice and all these little food drives that people have organized to help us. ... That was an amazing event," Choate said. "I tell you what, our Chamber knows how to throw a party. They really did an amazing job."
Choate praised all those involved in Ice on Ice and the entire community for their support.
"We are totally blessed to have the community support, and that is the only way we can do this is through community support," she said. "We get grants from foundations and all, but right now because so many nonprofits are in need, they're bombarded. ... We do have a lot of support from different foundations, and to be able to do this in our community's an honor and a privilege."
The food bank is always happy to accept donations -- either monetary or tangible gifts.
"We love food drives," Choate said. "People love to give tangible things, but really, we can buy food a lot more affordably. But we love it all. You can't beat free food drives."