Food Insecurity, Volunteering and Wage; Three Harmonious Topics

Low-income Fayetteville residents are volunteering to combat food insecurity and provide for their family

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. –– When Amy Leigh took a moment to take a phone call on Oct. 5, that’s all she got – a moment. Seconds after realizing that mommy’s attention was elsewhere, her 3-year-old daughter chimed in.

Leigh’s responsibility to provide nourishing meals for her family of five is a task that can be especially daunting when there is a limited amount of nutritious ingredients available to them because of their financial situation. 

Leigh’s husband works as an electrician while she stays at home to take care of the kids. They pay the bills with his single income and sometimes have to charge a credit card to afford groceries. But Leigh doesn’t expect her husband to provide everything for their family, which is why she volunteers at Tri Cycle Farms to receive food because working a minimum wage job would hardly cover childcare costs, she said.

“We are doing what we can for our kids, how we know to do it, and that’s the best that we’ve got,” Leigh said.

Leigh’s family isn’t a rare case. In 2016, nearly 18 percent of households in Arkansas also lack access or struggle to afford food that supports a healthy lifestyle, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s report on household food insecurity. In the same year, roughly 26 percent of Arkansas children were food insecure, according to Feeding America’s report, Map the Meal Gap 2016

Nationally, the amount of U.S. households that were food insecure in 2016 was about 12 percent, according to the report, but the issue in Arkansas has only declined by less than one percent since 2014. The state is one of 12 where food insecurity is higher than the national average. 

“We were happy to see that overall food insecurity in Arkansas has decreased. The Alliance and our Feeding America food bank members have worked diligently to increase access to food for low-income Arkansans,” said Kathy Webb, Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance executive director. “On the national level, the rate of households with food-insecure children dropped to below pre-recession levels, but there are still too many food-insecure children in Arkansas,” she said in a media release covering the report.

This reveals the problem as a convoluted one, caused by multiple, overlapping issues, according to Feeding America. Factors like affordable housing, social isolation, health problems, medical costs and low wages all increase low-income families’ risk of food insecurity, but income is the strongest determining factor, according to the report. 

Food insecurity is much more complex than just having enough food, Claire Allison, assistant director for the Center of Community Engagement, said. Allison oversees the student driven food programs on campus. The Jane B. Gearhart Full Circle Food Pantry provides food assistance to University of Arkansas’ students, staff and faculty members. Staff members are paid minimum wage, earning just under $18,000 a year, which is not enough to provide for an entire family, Allison said.

This is how wage is part of the complexity that’s rooted in food insecurity. Leigh’s husband’s salary as an electrician does not meet their entire cost of living. If minimum wage would be raised to $15 an hour, Leigh believes she could potentially afford daycare for the kids and help with bills, she said.

Underprivileged people have always been given food out of cabinets or received federal assistance, Leigh said, which can be helpful but lack any kind of nutritional value. Her family used to receive help from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, she said.

To earn vouchers that buy food, Leigh had to “sit through lectures about what they think nutrition is,” she said. She often found herself rolling her eyes because the food options provided were mostly processed or high in sugar, lacking nutrition. When Leigh qualified for the program, she only got $16 in food vouchers to spend over the course of a summer.

Living alone on a social security check, Lyn Hacker is a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participant who receives $15 in food stamps. This fills her kitchen with the basics; bread, eggs, milk. Every week, Hacker visits Second Street Pantry at First United Methodist Church in Bentonville to stock her cabinets with donations from the food bank and volunteer. 

This is similar to Leigh’s volunteer opportunities with Tri Cycle Farms.

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Lyn Hacker, 63, volunteering at Second Street Pantry, Oct. 3

Leigh is consistent volunteer for Tri Cycle Farms, helping every Monday with the Food Recovery Program, she said. This program is based on a relationship that Tri Cycle has with Whole Foods. Five days a week, Tri Cycle founder and executive director, Don Bennett brings volunteers to sort through the store’s perishable food that would have otherwise been thrown away.

The food is later distributed to some of Bennett’s partners like 7Hills Homeless Center, Seeds that Feed and LifeSource International, as well as volunteers who need it.

Because of her consistency and Bennett’s commitment to his volunteers, Leigh receives 25-30 pounds of groceries from Whole Foods every week, essentially for free.

“It feels painful to not be able to afford the good options,” Leigh said, but “I feel better giving my children quality food that won’t make them sick.”

Another one of Tri Cycle’s models is the Thirds Share Initiative. The farm shares a third of what it grows with volunteers, gives a third to food pantries and community meals, and sells a third to sustain the farm and demonstrate the economy of food, according to farm’s website.

Growing up, Leigh did not understand the importance of fresh foods because she didn’t have access to them, she said. Now, she’s in her sixth year of growing bell peppers, tomatoes, okra and peas in her personal, backyard garden. This is something she learned from Bennett.

Bennett’s long-term solution to food insecurity is growing food and teaching others to grow food, he said. He does this by offering community education through classes and monthly, hands on garden training to Tri Cycle volunteers.

“If you can get people fresh food, you’re giving them real food,” Bennett said.

Leigh witnessed how quickly food could emerge from a two-acre piece of land in the middle of urbanized Fayetteville, she said.

Bennett thinks that his farm is easily replicable and should be modeled after to address food insecurity across the nation because the “reality is that food is needed 365 days a year,” he said.

“Whole food makes you feel better and restores your dignity,” Leigh said.

Although Tri Cycle volunteer Karley Kindberg has never faced hunger, she does receive food from the Food Recovery Program and sometimes takes home the organic produce she harvested herself, which is helpful, she said.

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Garden manager Karley Kindberg (left), 24, teaching another volunteer at Tri Cycle Farms, Oct. 4

“My body, my mind and my spirit have all benefited immensely from this work and this food. I am the healthiest I have ever been and I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Kindberg said.

From 2004 to 2016 the average food-insecurity rate in Arkansas has ranged from about 14 to 21 percent, according to the USDA report, so for now, Leigh and Hacker will continue to make ends meet, fighting to survive, “incurring debt just to live,” Leigh said.

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