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story.lead_photo.caption Mike Carpenter, director of the Children’s Summer Feeding Program, packs lunches in the kitchen of First United Methodist Church in Benton. The program is a product of the Sheridan Ministerial Alliance, a partnership of 15 churches in Grant County to help children in need. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

One out of every four children in Arkasnas have food insecurity, said Mike Carpenter, director of the Children’s Summer Feeding Program.

“We have a lot of kids in our community and state who have food insecurity,” Carpenter said. “At first, we partnered with the Department of Human Services, but then we decided to reach out to more in our community, and if we raised the money as an organization, through grants or other corporate sponsors, or individual donations or church donations, then we get to reach more kids.

“The first year (in 2014), we had more than 900 lunches, and last year, we served over 13,000. We are on pace right now to pack 10,000 lunches this year, maybe even more.”

The Children’s Summer Feeding Program is a product of the Sheridan Ministerial Alliance, a partnership of 15 churches in Grant County to help children in need. The summer feeding program began June 3 and will end Friday. Lunches are provided at First United Methodist Church in Sheridan, The Well in East End, Poyen Assembly of God and Leola Missionary Baptist Church in Leola. Deliveries are made to predetermined locations in the Sheridan, Clearwater and East End areas.

Carpenter said the Children’s Summer Feeding Program is funded by grants and by corporate, business, church and private donations.

This is the sixth summer that the Sheridan Ministerial Alliance has sponsored the program to provide lunches to children and families in Grant and southern Saline counties who otherwise may not have had a lunch or a meal that day.

Carpenter said Arkansas is one of the worst states in the country for food insecurity, which affects 19.2 percent of Arkansans.

The program has an agreement with Pepsi Co., which has a national nonprofit organization that provides lunches at cost to various groups. Carpenter said the summer program gets the meals at cost, which include a sandwich and a vegetable and fruit. He said about 150 volunteers send the meals out to the community.

“You don’t want to see any child hungry,” Carpenter said. “I have been very fortunate in my life, but there are a lot of kids out there who are hungry and need food for survival.

“No matter the reason, it is just something we need to do. It is the right Christian thing to do. After retiring, I see it more and more. There are kids who need us out there. They need everyone’s help and love.”

Carpenter said the entire program is volunteer-based.

“We have 14 to 15 churches working together for a cause,” he said. “It is commendable for our community.”

Michael Daughtery, pastor at First Baptist Church in Sheridan, was appointed president of the alliance last year, and he said that when he stepped in, the focused was shifted solely to the Children’s Summer Feeding Program.

“It is something we can all agree upon,” Daughtery said. “Kids who are hungry should be able to get a meal and not have to rely on the government. … We don’t take any money from the government, but we rely on donations from local businesses and churches.

“We have simplified it so much. We have some really great pastors who care about this county. Mike Carpenter heads up the program, and he works his tail off. He deserves more credit than anybody.”

Daughtery also said a lot of what has been accomplished couldn’t be done without area businesses.

“Even these business owners who don’t go to church — they are passionate about feeding the children. Those who truly need [food] get it,” he said. “There are so many kids who just don’t have a meal; this is where businesses and churches partner to do things.

“We should care about our community, and our community cares about its people.”

Carpenter said the Alliance has provided 28,358 meals over the past five summers.

Todd-Paul Taulbee has been the appointed pastor at First United Methodist Church in Sheridan for a year, and by the time he got on board, the program was in full swing.

“Really, all I’ve done is come in and try to maintain it and grow it,” Taulbee said. “Mike [Carpenter] has done a great job encouraging the folks in my church to participate in the feeding program.

“And we have a really great group of people in our church who help not only during the summer, but throughout the year, in support of Mike. We give a lot of money to the program, as well, to make sure we have the dollars we need for the food necessary to feed the kids.”

The feeding program is housed in First United Methodist Church, Taulbee said. The church has the refrigerators and the storage space for the program, as well as paying Carpenter’s salary. However, Taulbee wanted to make it clear that the program is not just the work of the Methodist Church.

“Five or six years ago, at our annual conference, all Methodist churches were given the mission of 200,000 reasons [because that was the number of children in Arkansas with food insecurity at that time],” Taulbee said. “So United Methodist Churches all over the state have taken up the mantle, but different churches and different communities are doing it in different ways.

“This was our mission. It began as an idea, and it has certainly expanded quickly and moved out to the [Sheridan Ministerial Alliance] and a large part of the Christian community in Grant County.”

According to a 2019 report by Feeding America, the number of children in Arkansas who are food insecure has dropped to 167,440.

The Well, a new nonprofit organization in East End, has partnered with the program and taken over the distribution of food in the area. Taulbee said the alliance and First United Methodist Church in Sheridan are helping support The Well.

“Partnering with The Well, we may actually see our numbers from 2019 to 2020 drop a little bit because there will be way more meals distributed in East End,” Taulbee said. “But it is not about credit; it is about getting kids fed and having additional resources that they will be able to tap into.”

Before becoming director of the Children’s Summer Feeding Program, Carpenter worked as an engineer at the Pine Bluff Arsenal for 32 years. He and his wife are both teachers at Sheridan High School. He will be teaching career technology this fall.

“Being a teacher helps me tremendously,” Carpenter said. “It helps me get that compassion that I need. There are a lot in our community who need other influences in their life. They need some positive influence, and we are pushing to work hard to help them with their future.”

“It is not acceptable in our county, in our state and our country for there to be hungry kids,” Taulbee said. “It is absolutely unacceptable for the richest country in the world, and [our community] decided they were going to do something about it.

“Every time volunteers help deliver food or another church financially contributes, the need is made known. It is not just numbers — it is faces, real people and real kids in our community. We want the food insecurity to stop.”

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or spierce@arkansasonline.com.

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