By Max Bryan
FORT SMITH, Ark. — The biting cold and lack of transportation last Saturday morning didn’t stop Catie Meyer from getting to Martin Luther King Jr. Park.
Meyer, who at 10 a.m. stood bundled up at the front of a line of hundreds, said she left her house almost five hours prior for the Antioch In The Park food giveaway event that day. Without the event, Meyer said, she couldn’t have a Thanksgiving dinner — she and her friend with whom she was in line only receive a combined $10,000 per year in benefits.
Meyer was one of an estimated 10,000 people who lined several blocks to receive turkeys, stuffing and other holiday staples. They also received everyday items like cereal to supply them for the rest of the week.
People try to be helpful in this town, and I’m grateful for any help I can get,” Meyer said.
Fort Smith’s poverty rate of 25.8% — more than twice that of the national rate, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau — is at times overlooked in the wake of developments in areas like downtown, the riverfront and Chaffee Crossing. But it was in full view when thousands of people, including Meyer stand in the cold for hours to receive food.
It’s also seen in the cafeteria of Trusty Elementary School, where more than 90% of the 332 students are on free school lunches. Trusty is simply one of the 26 elementary, middle and high schools in the Fort Smith Public Schools system, where more than 73% of its 14,758 students receive their lunches either free or reduced.
These realities reflect sobering statistics from the Urban Institute: an estimated one in five people — and one in four children — in Sebastian County are food insecure. The study listed transportation costs, housing costs and good-paying jobs as contributing factors to food insecurity in Fort Smith specifically.
“The food insecurity drives them (to me), but the same high percentages are not able to pay utility bills and rent. I get multiple calls about, ‘Do you help with rent?’ ‘Do you help with utilities?'” said Antioch For Youth And Family Director Charolette Tidwell, who coordinated the food giveaway through her nonprofit.
There’s a lack of knowledge in the community in general of the whole situation,” said Fort Smith Public Schools Child Nutrition Supervisor Leigh Christian. “It’s right here, and there are a lot of kids who come up and beg for more food and need clothing.”
‘How Will I Be Fed?’
Even in a town where food insecurity is high, those unaffected by the issue may not see its effects immediately. But teachers who are unaffected by the issue themselves often see its effects in one place that’s hard to ignore — their classrooms.
Food insecure students in Fort Smith Public Schools come from myriad situations, but each one suffers hunger on full display in the classroom. Some are doubled up with other families in quarters without a kitchen. Some live out of motels. Others live in homes but only have access to non-perishable food items.
Trusty Elementary Assistant Principal Elizabeth Love said these students often return to school lethargic on Mondays because they are not fed well at their homes on the weekends. She said nutrition affects students’ classroom behavior — namely, their emotional responses to situations.
The rest of the week generally gets better as the students are fed, she said. But on Friday, they’re back to square one.
They’re mentally checked out, because they’re thinking, ‘What am I going to be eating this weekend? How will I be fed?’ They’re not focused on learning because they’re worried, and then that transcends into anger issues,” Love said.
A lack of nutrition also affects their brain development, Love said. She said some students have been diagnosed with ADHD because their lack of nutrition affects their attention spans.
Because of these effects, Fort Smith Public Schools officials have structured their cafeteria schedules around students’ needs. Monday breakfasts feature sweets, while spaghetti and pizza are the Friday lunch entrees.
“We’re sending them home on the weekend carbed out, and then when we get them back, we’re carbing them up,” said Child Nutrition Director Phillip Garcia.
What students’ families can afford to feed them also affects their behaviors in the cafeteria. Many families can only afford to pay for white bread and processed foods, while the schools are ordered to serve more nutritious options like wheat bread.
“If they’re not familiar with the food, they’re not going to eat it,” Love said. “They’re hungry, but they don’t eat the food on their plate because they don’t like it.”
The effects of food insecurity reach far beyond isolated incidents of classroom or cafeteria behavior, Love said. She said students’ academic performances are directly affected by a lack of nutrition, which affects their grades the longer the problem persists.
And when students don’t make good grades, their opportunities down the line are limited, thus continuing the cycle of poverty. Trusty currently has a D report card grade from the Arkansas Department of Education, which weighs academic growth, student success, graduation rate, achievement and school quality.
“We’re looking at how a lack of nutrition affects the kids in so many ways,” Love said.
‘I Would Have to Walk’
Families may be strapped for money to pay for food itself, but they also struggle to get that food back home.
Fort Smith residents on average spend 31% of their household income on transportation, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Tidwell in September said money residents spend on transportation could otherwise be spent on food.
An estimated 63% of people who use Fort Smith transit system do so because they have no vehicle. City buses from the beginning of 2019 through October have given more than 173,000 rides, according to records.
Fort Smith buses charge $1.25 for one-way trips and $2.50 for “demand response” — a bus with a higher degree of personal service, said City Transit Director Ken Savage. Savage said a number of service agencies provide vouchers for free transit that the transit system honors. Passengers may also bring three grocery bags or what they can carry onto the buses with them.
A challenge for residents without transportation arises, Savage said, when the buses stop operating. The Fort Smith transit system runs from around 5:30 a.m. to as late as 7 p.m. and doesn’t operate on Sundays, he said.
“Those are some things that we always want to look toward,” Savage said of night transit.
When residents in need of transit can’t take the bus during the off-hours, they pay for a cab service, Tidwell said. This means residents without their own means of transportation sometimes have to use a cab service to get to the grocery store and get to and from their homes.
This reality was on Meyer’s mind last Saturday morning — she said Antioch In The Park provided her “several days worth of food” that she would otherwise have challenges getting, even though she regularly uses the bus system.
I would have to walk — walk, yes, I said that, I walked here this morning, left my house at 5:15 a.m. to walk here to get where I am in line — to the main Antioch food bank or one of the churches that offers food,” she said.
‘It’s Going to Be Above Our Heads’
If there’s one thing city and public schools officials agree on, it’s that change that will help food insecure residents in Fort Smith will have to come from the top.
The city transportation system in 2020 is proposed to have a $596,000 operating budget, which accounts for everyday duties like one-way transit. The operating cost for a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week transit system would constitute an operating budget of more than $1.2 million. This doesn’t account for new vehicles and unexpected costs that could arise with the expansion of the current system.
Savage said city officials are working with First 100 Families Director Karen Phillips to try to pair up Transportation Assistance for Needy Families funds with federal transit funds to create a solution for families who need transit during off-hours. He said they are “in the very early stages” of this project, which he said would be a short-term solution to the transportation issue.
But Savage hopes a long-term solution is eventually sought.
“I don’t like to put out something for short-term solutions. I like to look carefully to see that it’s something that can be put out there and sustained for long-term solutions,” he said.
In the schools, Love said more public awareness is needed in order to prompt the right people to make decisions that help the students. She said the Urban Institute food insecurity study was a start, but that more awareness is needed.
We’re lucky we work in a district where we are passionate about this, but not everybody is, and so I think if changes are going to be made, it’s going to be above our heads,” she said.
And whatever happens at the top, residents who need food will feel it.
“I just don’t know what else to do or say to try to get more people to help other people,” Meyer said.
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