The pandemic has shown once again the resiliency, generosity and creativity of Arkansans. Despite coronavirus-imposed physical separation, we know we are stronger together. This has been clearly revealed in the amazing partnerships throughout the state between neighbors, churches, non-profits, businesses and community leaders to reach people in need of healthy, nutritious food.
One of the largest food distribution efforts in the state is happening in Fort Smith. In 2020, Antioch for Youth and Family distributed more than 3.5 million pounds of food, including almost one million pounds of fresh produce, milk, dairy and cooked meats provided by the United States Department of Agriculture Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. The collaboration among Feeding America, the River Valley Regional Food Bank and the City of Fort Smith has amounted to more than $6 million worth of food assistance for residents. With regular drive-up events at a local park, Antioch founder Charolotte Tidwell and her team continue to provide this critical service to people who need it most.
Similar partnerships have sprouted up all across the state. In February, the City of Little Rock and the non-profit FAB44 joined forces to provide grab-and-go meals at three local fire stations with plans to continue through the summer in an effort to reach at-risk youth in the neighborhoods where they live.
Nationwide initiatives to fight hunger and support restaurants are helping right here in Arkansas. Reality TV star Marcus Lemonis launched Plating Change, a program that purchases meals from restaurants to give to people in need of food. He solicited suggestions from his celebrity friends on which establishments to help. Thanks to Arkansas native Mary Steenburgen and her husband, Ted Danson, three Little Rock restaurants received more than $100,000 to prepare and deliver meals.
In Northwest Arkansas, we’ve seen inspiring efforts to reach needy families where they live, including a focus on meals for kids. Last year, the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank increased its School Pantry program to meet the growing demand. It started the year serving five schools and, by the end of 2020, was delivering food boxes to students and families at 12 area schools. The School Pantry program served 6,939 households and 34,883 people. That is in addition to more than 19,000 families helped through regular Mobile Pantry efforts and a new Pop-Up Pantry program that delivered food to rural and high-need areas.
One special partner for the NWA Food Bank has been the management and chefs at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. When the museum had to close due to COVID-19, the Crystal Bridges team started preparing breakfast and lunch for 300 Springdale elementary students, and helped school staff deliver the meals to their homes. The Crystal Bridges staff also packed food boxes for pantries at their own facility when the food bank could not have volunteers in its warehouse.
The challenges of the last year have caused many of us to think about our most critical needs, including our health, safety and access to food. As leader on the Senate Agriculture Committee and a founder and co-chair of the Senate Hunger Caucus, I am pleased to see cooperation between all levels of government and local organizations to fight food insecurity. Together, we are implementing solutions that save lives and keep people afloat in some of the most difficult days our state and our nation have faced.