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joining forces to fill the food bank
by Audrey Poff, photo by Kayla Macomber

As families across Northeast Arkansas look forward to their Thanksgiving feast with friends and family later this month, two local media groups are gearing up once again to help combat hunger in the community.

Now in its 10th year, KAIT-TV and Jonesboro Radio Group will sponsor Fill the Food Bank Food Drive on Nov. 16 as a benefit for the Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas. The event will take place from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Kroger Marketplace.

Christie Jordan, chief executive officer of the food bank, said KAIT came up with the Fill the Food Bank concept and asked a local bank to co-sponsor the event, originally called Canned Goods for Good Neighbors.

“The Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas was fortunate to be the beneficiary of the initial event,” said Jordan. “As the partnership with KAIT and Jonesboro Radio Group evolved, so did the Fill the Food Bank Food Drive.”

Jonesboro Radio Group President and General Manager Trey Stafford has been involved in the food drive for the past decade.

“Christie Jordan met with then-KAIT Vice President and General Manager Tim Ingram and me over lunch in the summer of 2008 to talk about an idea she had to stage a huge food drive event in the fall, and wondered if we would be willing to partner with her on it,” said Stafford. “Our Jonesboro Radio Group/KAIT partnership has always been about teaming up to serve our community. It was a perfect fit.”

During the early years, Stafford said the event was held in September to call attention to Hunger Action Month, then was later moved to November to encourage more people to take action before the holidays.

“But, the main way it has evolved is in the amount of food,” said Stafford. “We collected money and food totaling the equivalent of 17,433 meals in year one. This year, our goal is 140,000 meals, and I’m betting on Northeast Arkansas to do it.” 

For volunteers, the event is often one that tugs at the heart.

“The official role we play is preparing for the broadcast—writing scripts and recording interviews with Food Bank agencies in the days leading up to the event, then being on-site during the 13-hour event to voice live broadcasts, interview volunteers and donors,” said Stafford. “But, what we end up doing is greeting people as they pull up, take their donations, give them hugs, wipe away tears. We multi-task in the best way.”

For KAIT Vice President and General Manager Chris Conroy, the food drive provided early insight into the generous nature of the community after moving to Jonesboro three years ago.

“I’ve been a part of single-day food drives in other TV markets, but my first Fill the Food Bank in 2014 proved to me why Region 8 is such a special place,” said Conroy. “People here give with a joyful heart and are dedicated to taking care of each other like no place else.”

Conroy said KAIT’s internal service team, “The 8 Team,” plans team events that gather food and money to donate every year.

“On the day of the event, it’s truly a labor of love for all departments,” he said. “News, sales, marketing and engineering all come together and put in extra hours and volunteer their time.” 

Both food items and monetary donations are accepted during the drive.

“Canned food is always needed and welcomed, but it’s hard to beat the buying power of a dollar,” said Conroy. “The Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas can distribute four meals for every dollar donated.”

Jordan said the efforts of KAIT and Jonesboro Radio Group help draw attention to a need in the community that many residents never encounter personally.

“In addition to collecting over 100,000 meals during the busy holiday season, KAIT and Jonesboro Radio Group are important partners in educating the public about the issue of hunger in Northeast Arkansas,” said Jordan. “Too many people associate hunger or food insecurity with under-developed nations. Many people can’t imagine that hunger is an issue in the United States, Arkansas or even their own community.”

However, Jordan said she and the staff see people who are in need of assistance on a daily basis.

“The need for emergency food assistance in Northeast Arkansas is much greater than many people realize,” she said. “The Food Bank distributes food in 12 counties through a network of 140 partner agencies and programs. In 2016, the Food Bank distributed the equivalent of 5.7 million meals. To provide adequate food for the residents in Northeast Arkansas, the Food Bank would need to distribute 14 million meals annually.”

Although the food bank serves individuals ranging in age from infants to senior citizens, Jordan said seeing hunger among the elderly is especially difficult for her.

“I have a soft spot in my heart for our senior citizens who struggle to have enough to eat,” said Jordan. “Too many senior citizens make difficult choices between buying medicine or buying food; paying the utility bill or buying food; paying rent or buying food. With limited transportation options, it is especially challenging for senior citizens to access emergency food assistance.

“We have partnered with the East Arkansas Area Agency on Aging and many senior centers throughout Northeast Arkansas to improve access to emergency food for senior citizens, but both of our organizations struggle to find enough funding to sustain our senior food pantry program. It hurts me to think that the senior citizens who worked hard for so many years are struggling in retirement and that there are so few resources available to them.?” 

Jennifer Hannah, food resource coordinator for the Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas, will serve as event coordinator for this year’s food drive. Although she is a new addition to the food bank staff, she previously volunteered for the organization and is excited about leading this year’s effort.

“Our goal this year is 140,000 meals,” said Hannah. “Last year’s goal was 85,000 meals, and the people of Northeast Arkansas blew that goal out of the water by over 50,000 (meals), so we’re raising the stakes a tad this year.”

Hannah describes the Fill the Food Bank Food Drive as a unifying event for the community.

“Every year businesses, nonprofits, individuals and even past clients come together to try and make the holidays a little easier for families who struggle to put food on the table year-round,” she said. “We encourage the community to do what they can, whether that is coming out and volunteering for 30 minutes, donating a few dollars or dropping off ?s?ome canned goods. Just by donating one dollar, you’ve given a family of four dinner.”

Stafford said he is optimistic that area residents will help reach this year’s goal by responding as they always have.

“Show the need, be candid, honest and upfront with the community, and the community will over deliver what is needed,” said Stafford. “So has been the case with Fill the Food Bank. It’s about the community. Our radio stations and KAIT are simply the vehicles used to get the word out. It’s the community that does it.”

For more information on the Fill the Food Bank Food Drive, visit @FoodBankofNEA on Facebook or call 932-3663.