Just off a main highway in south Jonesboro, Ark., a large, blocky brick building receives several trucks in bays. Pallets of canned foods and bottled drinks are unloaded and carried inside, where it is incredibly clean, cavernous and no-nonsense. The pallets of non-perishables are placed on massive, high racks and produce — currently, large bowling-ball sized cabbages — carried to refrigerated rooms.
There is nothing extraneous here, nothing that doesn’t serve the purpose of feeding thousands and thousands of hungry folks in the northern Delta.
Headquarters for the Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas (http://foodbankofnea.org/) not only stores food but acts as the nerve center to coordinate a network of around 100 entities throughout 12 counties. The need doesn’t slack off — as hunger is a constant threat there is no off switch for the foodbank. The network, comprised of backpack programs, senior citizen centers, shelters, soup kitchens and the like, provides meals for some 5,000 people daily.
It is a massive effort, one farmers have taken to largely through the bank’s Acre of Hope program. The program’s big, important fundraiser is coming up on Jan. 24 and planning has been in full swing for weeks.
In 2017, Acre of Hope raised enough to feed around 300,000 people. Jeramy Richey, who farms near Marmaduke, Ark., says it would be nice to beat that in 2018.
“This year, we’ll shoot for more than that — we just want to include more folks, make them aware of what we’re doing. It’s important to just let everyone know the foodbank is here working to make folks’ lives better.”
Richey is “at least” a fourth-generation farmer growing cotton, corn, rice and soybeans on the family farm. “It probably goes back further than that since it seems everyone used to farm.”
Until a couple of years ago, “I wasn’t involved with the foodbank or the Acre of Hope program. A good friend I attended school with, Mary Beasley — who now runs the foodbank — contacted me. At the time, she needed a farmer to be involved with the annual fundraiser. She explained how the foodbank operates and how it impacts the region. I thought it was a good opportunity and was very happy to become involved, give a little back.”
The involvement took. “Now, I want to stay involved. I don’t know what level that will take in the future, but I’ll help out as long as they’ll have me.”
Unfortunately, says Richey, “a lot of people don’t know what the foodbank is up to, but once they become aware, they want to be involved. I was in that group, and when I learned what the foodbank does it kind of blew my mind that so many people in (northeast Arkansas) are being helped. There are so many here doing without.”
Fellow farmers are open to help. “When we present Acre of Hope or the foodbank to people, we’re well-received,” says Richey. “People like to help their neighbors. And the foodbank does a great job with the gifts they’re given. People see that and know things are managed properly, and they can trust the foodbank.”
It should be noted that Richey seems the type to avoid publicity. For the foodbank, though, he shrugs off caution.
“Part of the reason I got involved is simple: my Dad. Dad grew up as one of 12 farming kids. My grandpa died when Dad was 13 years old, and it was tough. The community knew what had occurred, of course, and helped my grandmother and the family out.
“Dad has always said, ‘Don’t y’all ever forget these people that have helped the family. It’s now your responsibility to help when you can, when an opportunity is there.’”
Acre of Hope
The foodbank “truly has a regional scope, a regional focus and doesn’t shy away from hard work,” says TJ Thompson, committee chairman of Acre of Hope.
“Farmers grow food, the foodbank disperses food — so, it’s a marriage that makes sense. On top of that, of course, is the agricultural community as a whole is very generous, and so Acre of Hope has proven to be a great event.”
The Jan 24, 2018, event will be the third Acre of Hope fundraiser. Thompson “got involved after the first one, and I’m honored to be chairing the committee this year, mostly tasked with coming up with ideas. We are very fortunate to have great people on the committee, folks with great connections who’ll dig in and get stuff done.”
The foodbank has a very good reputation across northeast Arkansas. “It usually isn’t a hard sell to get people on board to support Acre of Hope or some other foodbank-related event. It isn’t easy to raise money for anything, but the foodbank is one of those things you don’t have to justify when speaking with potential donors.
“People like to know they’re helping with something with such a regional reach. I’m from Pocahontas originally and know people working soup kitchens, backpack programs and the agencies that all benefit from the foodbank. That provides clout when you’re ranging outside the Jonesboro headquarters — Wynne, Cherry Valley, Trumann, and surrounding communities.”
Thompson says when people hear the numbers — “pounds of food that go through the foodbank annually, how many meals are provided daily — it typically surprises them. Northeast Arkansas isn’t the most prosperous area, so it doesn’t surprise anyone to hear there’s great need. When you start putting specific numbers to define ‘great need’ is when there is surprise. Putting tangible numbers to things like how many people are actually food-insecure opens eyes.”
Thompson was exposed to the foodbank efforts through several Chamber of Commerce functions. Then, “two years ago, I was approached to help with the 2017 event.
“I’m obviously hooked in to the agricultural community through my job (TJ is HR and brand manager for Valley View Agri-Sytems). My company is extremely generous to allow me to work with the foodbank. And with Acre of Hope targeted towards the ag community, it just made sense to be a part.”
Come have fun
The general makeup of the Jan. 24 event is a dinner and fundraiser.
“We have a steak dinner catered in from Harrisburg — worth the ticket price,” says Thompson. “There’s also a live auction that’s very entertaining and kept lighthearted.”
This year, there’s a little twist on the Acre of Hope silent auction. “Rather than the traditional route, we’ll have the Acre of Hope Sweepstakes. Everyone who comes in the door can buy tickets that represent chances for each sweepstake package. They can drop as many tickets as they want on a sweepstakes item to increase their odds of being drawn to win it. Instead of just going with the highest bid, doing it this way allows more attendees to participate.”
What about making donations?
“Food donations are certainly welcome,” says Thompson. “The foodbank has avenues for folks to donate food items.
“However, the relationships the foodbank has with food providers let them really make more use of monetary donations. The foodbank’s purchasing arrangements allow them to stretch a dollar much further than you or I could when buying food across the retail counter. I think the multiplier is about 5:1.”
Farmers are encouraged to get involved through the Donate an Acre program. “You can become an Acre of Hope member through the program — $500 represents an acre. So, $500 makes you an Acre of Hope Donor and, if desired, you can designate those funds to any county you want within the foodbank’s service area.”
For more information, contact Mary Beasley at (870) 932-3663 or email [email protected].