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Efforts to feed hungry grow as virus, food prices surge

by Stacy Ryburn | December 25, 2020 at 3:01 a.m.
Jennifer Deckinger (left) and Mikayla Roy, volunteers with the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, help distribute food Tuesday at the Siloam Springs Senior Activity and Wellness Center during a Northwest Arkansas Food Bank pop-up food pantry. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Food banks in Arkansas have seen an uptick in demand during the coronavirus pandemic, and Northwest Arkansas benefactors also are seeing increased food prices drive need during the holidays.

Monetary donations, including those made this season through the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's annual Community Christmas Card campaign, will help the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank continue to buy food for those who need it most.

As of Thursday, the campaign had collected $25,109. The food bank receives 100% of the tax-deductible donations.

The economic fallout from the pandemic has hit this region just as it has in many parts of the globe, said Kent Eikenberry, the food bank's chief executive officer. Food bank volunteers and staff are seeing many first-time recipients line up at food pantries and distribution events, he said.

Vehicles lined up early Tuesday for the food bank's drive-thru event at the Siloam Springs Senior Activity and Wellness Center. Recipients don't need to meet income or other qualifications for the food; they can just show up.

Masked volunteers worked in unison to keep boxes of food moving as the temperature tried to inch past the freezing mark.

Dry goods, produce, milk, chicken, honey-baked hams and other assorted frozen meats were given out. About 240 parcels were made for the stop in Siloam Springs and another later in the morning in Gravette, said Jack Harrison with the food bank.

Debbie Frey of Gentry waited for her turn at the drive-thru.

"Groceries are going up; everything is going up," she said. "I was surprised to see a gallon of milk is $4. This is a blessing for sure."

Marion Bales of Siloam Springs inched her vehicle forward as the line moved along.

"Needed help with Christmas food," she said. "This is going to help out."

About 40% of the 160 or so food pantries in Northwest Arkansas closed at the onset of the pandemic. In response, the food bank took a more active role in food distribution, increasing efforts with mobile, pop-up and school pantries.

The partner pantries have resumed operation, Eikenberry said, but the food bank is continuing direct distribution because demand has not let up, he said.

"We just look at places where there's not easy access for those people who are food insecure," Eikenberry said. "We're going to them rather than asking them to go someplace else to go to us."

Eikenberry said the food bank likely will end the year spending about $2 million on food. The organization spent about $1.5 million last year. Monetary donations are critical to the food bank's mission to relieve hunger in the area, he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Families who are food insecure aren't sure they will always have a meal on the table.

Rusty Turner, editor of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, said community leaders and the public need to focus on fighting food insecurity, especially during a pandemic when needs are increasing.

"We hope our Christmas Card campaign on behalf of the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank not only helps the organization's goal of reducing food insecurity in the community, but also draws attention to the ongoing need," he said. "Our readers' generosity is inspiring, and we are grateful for their enthusiastic support."

Chelsea Tatlow (left) and Nena Evans, both with the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, visit Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, as they wait for clients at the Siloam Springs Senior Activity and Wellness Center during a Northwest Arkansas Food Bank pop-up food pantry. Readers who wish to donate money to the food bank can do so until Thursday as part of the newspaper's Community Christmas Card.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)
Chelsea Tatlow (left) and Nena Evans, both with the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, visit Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, as they wait for clients at the Siloam Springs Senior Activity and Wellness Center during a Northwest Arkansas Food Bank pop-up food pantry. Readers who wish to donate money to the food bank can do so until Thursday as part of the newspaper's Community Christmas Card. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)
Ruben Guerrero (from right), with the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, Dean Deckinger, 13, and Mikayla Roy, both volunteers, help distribute food Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, at the Siloam Springs Senior Activity and Wellness Center during a Northwest Arkansas Food Bank pop-up food pantry. 
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)
Ruben Guerrero (from right), with the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, Dean Deckinger, 13, and Mikayla Roy, both volunteers, help distribute food Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, at the Siloam Springs Senior Activity and Wellness Center during a Northwest Arkansas Food Bank pop-up food pantry. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)
Sabrina Thiede, with the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, signals client information Dec. 22, 2020, at the Siloam Springs Senior Activity and Wellness Center during a Northwest Arkansas Food Bank pop-up food pantry. 
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)
Sabrina Thiede, with the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, signals client information Dec. 22, 2020, at the Siloam Springs Senior Activity and Wellness Center during a Northwest Arkansas Food Bank pop-up food pantry. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)
Leilani Ocasio, with the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, distributes food Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, at the Siloam Springs Senior Activity and Wellness Center during a Northwest Arkansas Food Bank pop-up food pantry. 
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)
Leilani Ocasio, with the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, distributes food Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, at the Siloam Springs Senior Activity and Wellness Center during a Northwest Arkansas Food Bank pop-up food pantry. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)
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