The pressure to fit in, grades to maintain, societal standards, cyberbullying… being a student in today’s world is no easy task, even more so when you are not sure where your next meal will come from or if you will even have one. For roughly 3,000 school age kids in Pope County, food insecurity is a daunting reality and burden faced each day. Those 3,000 kids add up to a local statistic of nearly 28 percent, approximately 7 percent higher than the national average of 21 percent. With startling numbers like that, it is safe to say that the responsibility of alleviating child hunger in Pope County is a shared one.
In the summer of 2014, vision, passion, and compassion in the heart of a purpose-driven woman led to bright beginnings and putting a dent in a very real problem. Kristin Foster, co-founder and director of River Valley Food 4 Kids (RVF4K), took a lifelong dream of helping feed people along with experience volunteering in her church’s food pantry, and launched it into a career and calling in her very own non-profit.
“A lady I worked with at the food pantry at my church was talking about what kids on the Backpack Program would do after school let out. I started looking into what was out there and could not find much. Only small programs serving 30-50 kids. But we have 1,000 kids in Russellville alone who rely on the Backpack Program,” said Foster.
Their recognition of a gap in the system planted a seed that became the future of RVF4K. Not long after that, Foster began identifying churches in the community that she knew were interested in hunger relief, had food pantries, and were already participating in similar efforts so that she could gather them and share a vision. “In my mind, I was hoping to do weekend backpacks for the kids at the Boys & Girls Club, which was around 50-80 kids. But once we got everyone together we realized we could do way more than originally planned. We could do a whole week,” recalled Foster.
Foster and her team fed 120 kids two meals a day for that entire summer, totaling around 32,000 meals by the time school resumed. They were able to achieve such impressive numbers by working with a summer enrichment plan implemented by the school district for kindergarten through fourth grade.
“Used to, Rice Depot served the backpack program for this area, and over the last couple of years they have pulled out of the area. Starting this year, they will no longer be serving Pope County. When schools were informed that Rice Depot was no longer going to be available, one of the counselors I go to church with called me and said if they don’t have Rice Depot they will have to shut it down due to a lack of time to collect food and budget to purchase food with on their own,” said Foster.
With such a large win under their belt, RVF4K has continued to make mighty strides. They now service about 1,200 children in the Russellville, Atkins, Pottsville and Dover school districts.
Last Christmas break alone they were able to distribute food to 989 kids in four hours at the Pope County Fairgrounds. “When I went to shop for food I planned for 1,000 thinking there was no way that many would show up. But the need is so great that if I had cut food down we would have run out. It is overwhelming how desperate the need is. Kids are on break during these times and it becomes difficult for some of them to get food,” said Foster.
Student selection and criteria most often falls to school counselors who can identify students struggling with hunger while some send the information out to all students. “My husband is a teacher, and many times a child who is not getting enough to eat will constantly ask teachers if they have any snacks,” explained Foster.
In most cases, recipients fall into one of two categories: the child is being fed at home, but the food is low in nutrients causing the student to be unable to stay full. Or a student is only being fed at school, leaving large spaces of time where the student does not have access to food. Foster identified several effects of food insecurity, a few being behavioral and discipline problems, generational poverty and poor grades. “Some of these kids are so focused on being hungry that cannot focus on anything else,” Foster added.
While for some families any assistance at all might be appreciated, RVF4K is taking steps to begin pursuing foods that are natural and rich in nutrients. “During the school year we will do something like oatmeal, soup, a fruit or veggie, and a snack for each day. In the summer we offer boxes of cereal, peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, fruits, vegetables, milk, and we are working on having frozen meat instead of canned meat as well as having less processed foods. Whole, natural foods are needed for development,” said Foster.
Foster firmly believes that the idea of low-income and laziness going together is a severe misconception with assistance programs. “There are always people who give something a bad name for everyone, but the majority of parents whose kids receive help are working more than one job, or in other cases, a child is living with a grandparent who did not expect to be raising a kid at their age.”
When you hear of all that the 2-year-old organization has accomplished you could easily imagine there is a great team behind it, and there is. Foster works with 180 volunteers throughout the year and a board of directors made of 12 people in the community. “I love what I am doing so it makes it easy to make it a priority. Also, this is not a one man show. The volunteers and board of directors put in a lot of work.” “I joke about being glad God kept how big this would grow a secret. I think if I had known in the beginning I would have told him I am not the girl, that I could not handle it. But we have the most generous, supportive and amazing community. Every time we have a need it is met,” said Foster.
RVF4K is completely funded by donations and child sponsorships — a child can be fed for an entire year on just a $100 sponsorship. Foster has been overcome with the willingness of the community to pitch in and help. “The first year we needed to raise $15,000 to do the program, and we thought it would be so hard. We raised $30,000 pretty much overnight. By working with the Arkansas Food Bank, Arvac and Cash Savers, we are able to making everything cost effective.” Monetary donations have not been the only thing given by the community, also time and even real estate. Athletes from Arkansas Tech University have helped unload delivery trucks and Russellville School District donated a space in the old Gardner Jr. High building to be used.
The future of this organization is projected to be as fruitful and incredible as the past. Foster plans on adding educational aspects to the program, sharing information with kids on exercising and eating right, fun activities and encouraging them to be active during school breaks.
If you are interested in volunteering, learning more about RVF4K, or you or someone you know needs to speak with someone about getting assistance with food, you can visit www.rivervalleyfood4kids.org, call 479-223-1544, email firstname.lastname@example.org or like their Facebook page.