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As School Closures Stretch On, Businesses, Nonprofits Work To Feed Students

Daniel Breen

Students in Arkansas won’t be going back to school until at least April 17. That also means no school breakfast or lunch, but in the meantime, nonprofits and businesses in central Arkansas are working to pick up the slack in the midst of a pandemic.

Stacey Bevans, Regina Doyne and Stacey Moore would normally be at work at Little Rock’s College Station Elementary, but on a recent day were outside, setting up a table full of bag lunches. Doyne, the school's resource teacher, said Gov. Asa Hutchinson's decision to close schools came as a surprise.

"We didn't know what to think, or... how would we facilitate instruction. So, with the governor making that decision, we didn't know what the outcome would be. And we still don't know," Doyne said. 

A few miles away, volunteers were steadily churning out meals at the William J. Clinton Presidential Center, which has suspended operations through the end of April. Kyle Pounders, who owns the food truck Excaliburger, is now overseeing an operation that has served roughly 30,000 free meals in two weeks.

Credit Daniel Breen / KUAR News
Shelly James serves grab-and-go dinners from her food truck Nach'yo Nachos outside of the Sue Cowan Williams Library in Little Rock.

"Lunch has just gone out, and dinner is getting cooked downstairs. Everyone's kind of resetting. We're going to have some people come in from the city and from the state, and Bill Clinton's about to do a phone call with us," Pounders said. "As dinner's being cooked, once it's ready about 2 o'clock, 2:30, it's going to start making its way up here through the elevators.”

Meals start their journey downstairs in the kitchen of what's normally the center's restaurant, 42 Bar and Table. They're then brought up to the center's great hall, where a team of volunteers packs them up to be shipped to schools, public housing and other locations.

Pounders says his team has taken every precaution to ensure the food they're serving is safe.

"We're using this room because all the surfaces are sanitizable. We've got a nurse at the door, she's taking temperatures, checking people in. We've got questions that we ask them, just to give it the best shot with the tools that we have of filtering out potential candidates for the virus," Pounders said. 

The process is a partnership between the City of Little Rock, the Little Rock School District, the Central Arkansas Library System, the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, the Clinton Foundation and World Central Kitchen; a nonprofit founded by chef José Andrés that's overseeing operations like the one in Little Rock across the world. But some key partners, especially for distribution, are food truck owners.

Slader Marshall owns Searcy-based Slader's Alaskan Dumpling Company, now parked outside of Little Rock's Stephens Elementary. His business has taken a hit recently, but he says the impact of the coronavirus pandemic goes far beyond himself.

Credit Daniel Breen / KUAR News
Slader Marshall stands in front of his food truck parked outside of Little Rock's Stephens Elementary School.

"There's a lot... of people affected. And there's more important things than whether your business is doing well or not, overall health and safety is much more important than that," Marshall said. "But there's people that are really making life decisions as far as what they're doing going forward, and I think that whatever that looks like, whether its access to funds or whether its a stimulus where they're writing people checks... anything is a help." 

Darla, who didn't want to provide her last name, was laid off from her job after restaurants moved to take-out and delivery service only. As she picks up food for her seven family members at Little Rock's Sue Cowan Williams Library, she says even seeking out assistance comes with risks.

"We applied for food stamps, so I don't know how long that's going to take. But whenever you go into places like that, you’re letting yourself open. We wear masks when we go into places like that... it's really scary." 

But, as volunteers at the Clinton Center prepare for longer school closures, Kyle Pounders says they're trying to stem the spread of fear that has come with the coronavirus outbreak.

“We’re chefs, it’s what we do, but the food is a vehicle which can create calm amidst chaos,” Pounders said.

Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.
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