Campuses struggle to feed students

Food pantries in Arkansas communities are trying to adapt to the conditions of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Some have closed. Some have moved to curbside pickup to minimize contact. For food pantries trying to serve student populations, it’s even more complicated.

Kim Kirby directs the food bank at Phillips County Community College’s campus in Stuttgart. The campus is part of the University of Arkansas system, and thus follows directions on operations from the UA Fayetteville, conducting classes online. The students’ food bank on campus has remained dark. “So, we have not given out food,” Kirby said. “We gave out [food] right before spring break, when campus was completely open.” 

One location being considered for distribution is the computer lab. It’s the only open building remaining on campus, to give students who don’t have internet access — and there are many in Southeast Arkansas who don’t — a chance to get online and complete classes. But even before Arkansas County saw its first official COVID-19 case March 30, the computer lab wasn’t very busy.

In normal times, the PCCC-UA food bank serves 60 to 70 students every month. Curbside pickup of food and even delivery had been considered here, but its students are rural and far-flung, driving in from well beyond the borders of north Arkansas County to attend classes. And many don’t have reliable transportation, Kirby said. 

For students in grades one through 12, the logistics may be different, but many of the risks and barriers are similar.

“We sat down even before schools closed, and said, ‘What’s our plan B?’ ‘What’s our plan C?’ ” said Dr. Megan Selman, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Arkansas River Valley, which serves Russellville, Dardanelle and London. Though schools in the area are closed, River Valley school districts provide breakfast and lunch pickups through a USDA program; dinner is provided by nearby Boys & Girls Clubs. The Dardanelle club is by Dardanelle High School; the Russellville club is by a Russellville elementary school. “We knew we already had hungry kids before the crisis happened. We already served 300 meals a day before school was out,” Selman said. “We definitely didn’t want to take food off the table.”

Megan Selman, CEO/executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Arkansas River Valley

The Plan B for feeding food-insecure students in the Arkansas River Valley reduces normal contact. “We have a skeleton crew of nine,” Selman explained. The temperatures of the crew are checked before they’re allowed to work in the kitchen. “You pull up, with your car windows up, and you flash your headlights for the number of meals. The volunteer puts out the meals on a table and goes away. No contact. They can then leave with an extra dinner meal. They’re not hot meals, so they’re still good at dinnertime.” Meals are distributed at Dardanelle and Russellville Monday through Friday, and on Sundays in Russellville. Any leftovers are offered to residents in area low-income housing.

“Some [area students] don’t have adult supervision, or internet, or a computer,” Selman noted, so the meals don’t require the child to cook, or even microwave. The meals also contain activity packs for students: “It will be something like, ‘Ten ways to make a paper airplane,’ positive activity. We’re here to stand in the gap. That’s how we’re doing this right now.”

Back in Stuttgart, Kirby has academic concerns for students this semester as well as concerns about their food insecurity. It was announced April 6 announcement that Arkansas schools will remain closed for the remainder of the year, with classes being conducted online. But people, especially in rural areas of the state, have lagged in online access for years. And there’s another rub for PCCC-UA students who take courses online, according to Kirby: “With our students being majority nontraditional and first-generation college, it’s more difficult for them; they tend to do better with face-to-face.”

Classes or no, Kirby would like to get the campus food bank open for distribution to students again. Food insecure students are by definition struggling with issues more pressing than their G.P.A.s.

“We’re trying to figure out how to do it,” Kirby said. “It’s so unknown how it’s going to play out; it’s hard to prepare for.”

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.