ARKANSAS, USA — Starting in June, free pandemic-related school lunches will end in Arkansas.
For the past two years, a federal program allowed all students in public schools grades K-12 to eat for free while at school. Congress is now choosing not to extend the program.
“Congress has really failed kids and families on this," said Laura Kellams, NW Arkansas Director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. "Also, by extension, they have failed our schools."
"Why can't you vote to feed children while they're in a public school that they are legally required to go to," said Bentonville mom Alicia Briggs.
As the program comes to an end, it's again bringing up the topic of food insecurity and how severe it is in Arkansas, and some are trying to fight the issue.
"Your neighbor is very likely struggling with hunger, or their kids might not know where dinner's coming from," said Coleman Warren, founder and owner of ice cream truck Simple+Sweet Creamery.
"We're talking about children,” Briggs said. “These are our kids."
Briggs has a 14-year-old son with autism and understands the struggles parents go through to care for their children.
“We don't have to worry about using a necessity to cover another necessity," she said.
She says she thinks about those who will have to pay for school lunches again with rising prices.
"We are still dealing with inflation and will be for a long time," Briggs said.
Briggs, Kellams and Warren say food insecurity is real in Arkansas despite big-name companies in the area.
"People here may have good-looking paychecks on paper, but combine that with the high cost of living, they're bumped out for a program they desperately need for their children and their children’s success," Briggs said.
"If we know we need school buses, if we know we need notebooks and pencils at schools,” Kellams said. “Then we also know we need meals at school. We are long past the argument if we need to provide meals at schools for hungry kids."
Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families say more than half of the children in our area qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Among that group Greenwood mom Carol Andrews’ two kids. The family used the savings to supplement the family budget.
“I got a husband who does accounting for a living,” Andrews said. “So, he’s really good a budgeting money.”
The Andrews’ and other families will have to re-adjust to the increased cost.
"So, we just always try to keep the budget with whatever it will be. If it didn't exist,” Andrews said.
People like Coleman Warren, a Rhodes and Truman Scholar, are working to combat the problem. The University of Arkansas graduating senior started an ice cream truck with a mission to address food insecurity in Arkansas. The truck is located at 529 N. College Ave., Fayetteville, Arkansas 72701.
"So, I wanted to bring the incredible ice cream, artisanal ice cream, to Fayetteville, but also make an impact on the status of hungry kids," Warren said.
Warren takes the profits from this truck and gives them to non-profits like the Northwest Arkansas Foodbank. He has been on track to provide more than 35,0000 meals since opening in 2019. The goal is to get food to the people who need it most, including those struggling to feed their children.
"How are kids supposed to focus on their education and dreams when they don't know where dinner is coming from," Warren said.
With the free program ending soon, Kellams says this will impact schools because they won’t get reimbursed as much, despite rising food costs.
Families have to reapply for the original free and reduced lunch program starting in July for the upcoming school year.
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