Dardanelle woman’s goal: End childhood hunger

By Tammy Keith Published July 16, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: William Harvey

Kristin Foster of Dardanelle said she and a friend co-founded River Valley Food 4 Kids after seeing the need for students to have food during the summer. The summer feeding program is underway in Pope and Yell counties, and the nonprofit organization provides backpacks of food for needy students during the school year. Foster said that as executive director, “It’s more than a full-time job, but I love it.”

Don’t disparage poor people around Kristin Foster of Dardanelle — she’s seen too much.

“People talk about poverty like it’s a moral issue, but it’s a money issue,”

Foster said. “They work hard and just don’t have enough money to make ends meet.”

Foster’s full-time job is working to make sure children in Pope and Yell counties don’t go hungry. She co-founded River Valley Food 4 Kids in 2014 and is executive director of the nonprofit organization.

Although Foster said she never went hungry, there weren’t a lot of extras while she was growing up, and she was impressed by how hard her parents worked to provide for her, an only child.

“I was never personally without, but we lived in a very poor area, so there was a lot of poverty around us,” she said. “Growing up, I had friends who got off the bus at the campgrounds, and I thought they just got to camp all the time and how cool that was. I didn’t realize until I as an adult that these kids were living in tents.”

Foster grew up in the Johnson County community of Knoxville, where her parents still live.

“They did everything right; I remember they had to prioritize and budget,” she said.

Foster, 35, said her father started a furniture-store business when she was 9, and her mother worked full time and earned a degree in accounting.

“We were not by any means well off, but we were doing better than a lot of people around us,” she said. “I think how hard [my parents] had to work to make sure we had everything we needed. I see that with so many of the parents we serve.”

Foster said she always loved volunteering, especially

with food pantries. The married mother of two was working in a food pantry at the church she attended in Russellville when she got the idea to start River Valley Food 4 Kids.

“I was working in our food pantry in our church with a lady I am friends with, and we were talking about what happened to kids on the backpack program when school is out for the summer,” she said. At that time, the Rice Depot provided food for Russellville students in the backpack program.

She and that friend, Joelle Lowder, and the Food Pantry Committee decided to do something to help feed kids in the summer.

“I started looking into it and didn’t really find anything; then I started looking into what other communities do to feed their kids in the summer,” she said.

She and Lowder came up with some ideas, and Foster organized the first meeting.

“We invited a bunch of different churches and community groups interested in hunger to get together to talk about what we could do,”

Foster said. “I had envisioned 10 groups taking care of five kids [each] — just something small.”

The project exceeded all her expectations.

“Everybody was really on fire and excited, so it turned into a much bigger project, even the first year,” Foster said. Instead of 50 kids, at least 125 children participated in the first River Valley Food 4 Kids summer feeding program, she said.

“We operated out of a church, and we’d just have [volunteers] pack up the bags and put them in their cars and take them to the elementary schools around town, and parents would pick them up. It worked well when it was a smaller operation.”

Participation and community support grew, and the program moved to a space in the Russellville School District. She said the school district was a lifesaver, but the district eventually needed the space for its own programs. In May, River Valley Food 4 Kids opened a warehouse at 407 N. El Paso St. in Russellville.

“Now we serve about 1,000 kids in the summer. This summer, it’s a little lower than we anticipated; 800 signed up, and we never see a 100 percent pickup rate.” Students are served in Russellville, Dardanelle and Dover.

Most of the food is purchased through the Arkansas Food Bank and local grocery stores.

“In the summer, they get cereal, peanut butter, soup, snacks — easy kid-friendly things — and they always get a bag of chicken Tyson donates, … and they get fresh produce. We buy produce from local farms and most of our fruit from grocery stores,” she said.

The food is taken to drop-off locations in participating communities, and adults — parents, grandparents or guardians — pick up the food.

To qualify, individuals must fill out a form and be earning below 138 percent of the federal-poverty guideline, and they must have children in the house.

“We don’t do it for adults without children,” she said. “We try to make it fairly simple because if you say you need food for your kid, we want you to have food.”

Also, Foster said, a short education class is required for everyone who

participates.

“The education part — I love that. That’s something we’ve really tried to get going and have enjoyed doing, giving our parents some resources,” she said.

For example, earlier this month, she had a representative from the Pope County Library come in and talk about resources for job searches and other services available for parents, as well as free activities offered for children.

“It’s a great free resource in the community to help them find better jobs,” Foster said.

During the school year, River Valley Food 4 Kids serves 1,000 to 1,200 Russellville School District students in the backpack program. The program also serves Atkins, Dover and Pottsville.

“The Rice Depot stopped serving our area a few years ago, and we stepped in and filled that need,” Foster said.

“Without Kristin, we wouldn’t be where we are now, serving 1,000 kids across multiple schools and districts in the River Valley,” Lowder said. “We have always had amazing volunteers and dedicated board members, but no one has worked harder than Kristin.”

Running the organization is “more than a full-time job, but I love it,” Foster said. “The time we’re handing out food is the smallest portion you see. I spend most of my time writing grants or bringing in volunteers. I’m fundraising and connecting with the community and trying to keep people aware of what we’re doing.”

Lowder said Foster has “worked tirelessly for the past three years to keep this program going. I can’t even begin to estimate the number of hours she’s put in. She has sacrificed a lot for River Valley Food 4 Kids, and so has her family. Her husband and her kids work beside her when they can, but some weeks she puts in more hours at River Valley Food 4 Kids than some people do at full-time jobs. She works with our board, community leaders, volunteers, business people, school staff, other nonprofits and local churches. She organizes and coordinates practically everything we do.”

Foster said with a laugh that her son, Riley, 8, and daughter, Avery, 13, are “voluntold” to help.

The organization has 12 board members, who Foster praises as passionate and involved.

“We have a great volunteer group, but we never turn away anyone who wants to volunteer,” she said. “We encourage people to bring their kids to volunteer with them.”

She added that it’s never too early to teach children about poverty and hunger.

“We have a little boy who comes to volunteer a lot, and he was talking to me, and he said, ‘Now, this all goes to kids in Africa, right?’”

Foster said she explained that the food was going to children in local schools.

“He said, ‘But not to kids at my school.’”

“I said, ‘Well, yeah.’ He just couldn’t imagine that [hunger] really happens here,” she said.

Foster said she believes it’s her mission to let people know that hunger does exist in their communities, but they can help do something about it.

“The goal is always to work yourself out of a job, to get to a point where nobody needs us anymore,” Foster said. “That’s probably never going to happen.

“My biggest goal is to get this to a point that it is totally sustainable so when I’m not involved, it will continue. I’ll probably be here forever, but you always want it to be where it can carry on. We want to make sure that this is around for a long time.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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