On Thursday, July 30, 2015, I was thrilled to pay my first of many visits to the River Valley Regional Food Bank here in Fort Smith, AR. They are a member of Feed America’s nationwide network of 200 food banks serving the Arkansas River Valley. The River Valley Regional Food Bank has a strong presence within the Fort Smith community of nonprofit organizations. They provide food and beverages to 189 certified membership nonprofit organizations and churches who then distribute the meals to individuals suffering from food insecurity. Sadly, 17% of Sebastian County alone is food insecure. The population of this region is only 300,000; however, this food bank serves an estimated 43,000 people in the Arkansas/Oklahoma River Valley area.
It was an honor to spend the morning with Ken Kupchick, Marketing Director of the River Valley Regional Food Bank. He offered a wealth of knowledge and experience, giving me tours of both their current location and their new, much larger facility, which is set to open in early 2016. This new facility will allow the food bank to store more than 4 times the amount of food and beverages as their current location, which will in turn allow them to accept larger food quantities and serve more families struggling with hunger. I was able to experience first-hand the process of receiving, storing, and distributing the food to the public, as well as meet several of the dedicated individuals who work tirelessly for this cause and make sure that every donation touches as many lives as possible.
Ken explained to me how perfectly edible food that would otherwise be thrown out is donated to the food bank by area grocers and supermarkets. As stated in a previous post about food waste in America, food products have two types of dates. One date is for customers: use by or best by. The other is for supermarkets: sell by date. In order to avoid selling expired products supermarkets throw out food that is still edible. Feeding America food banks help to cut down on this food waste and feed hungry Americans by accepting good, nutritious food that is reaching its “sell by” date. The River Valley Regional Food Bank has daily scheduled pick up times at numerous area restaurants, grocers, and supermarkets, such as Harps and Walmart. Walmart recently donated a new pickup and delivery truck that has helped get more food for those in need throughout the River Valley region. These are just a few of the reasons that even small donations benefiting Feeding America are able to help so many people nationwide.
I also got to see the enormous amounts of food, literally rows and rows of pallets stacked floor to ceiling, that is stored until a local certified nonprofit member calls in an order. I was astonished at the amount of food that would have otherwise been thrown out if not accepted by the food bank. Like many people, I had previously thought that food banks handled primarily canned goods, macaroni and cheese, rice, and those types of nonperishable food items; however, that is not the case. There was a large variety of healthy, name brand foods available. From bags of almonds and fresh produce to protein bars and greek yogurt, the high quality of foods available to families who could otherwise not afford them was very encouraging. It was gratifying to know that, not only is our mission helping feed Americans struggling with hunger, but we are nourishing families and increasing the quality of their lives.
Every day countless orders are received, sorted, packaged, labeled, and distributed by employees who feel called to serve their communities. They care about the welfare of the families in our region and want to make a positive impact in their lives. These are not high salaried employees who work in an air conditioned warehouse. They load and unload pallets of food every single day in 100+ degree heat because they believe in this cause.
Before leaving the food bank, I witnessed a pickup truck arrive and collect a truck load of food, beverages, and paper products. They were taking the order to a local nonprofit that houses young women who are experiencing crisis situations in their lives and helps them to overcome their past behaviors and issues in order to become productive citizens. These are people helping people become better people one meal at a time. At that moment, I knew that providing food for the 49 million Americans struggling with food insecurity has even deeper implications than we can possibly know. Providing a meal may mean hope for a young woman, healthy development for a child, or respect for a senior citizen. It may just be the way to show people that they are worthy, loved, and deserve a brighter future. Thank you, Ken Kupchick and the River Valley Regional Food Bank, for showing Per Diems Against Poverty how together, we can end poverty in America.