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Greater support for child nutrition in Arkansas highlighted

School officials say the number of children eating school meals in Arkansas has increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jae C. Hong/AP
School officials say the number of children eating school meals in Arkansas has increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

School officials are calling for greater support for child nutrition programs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The nonprofit group Mission: Readiness, which focuses on recruiting young adults into military service, held a virtual forum about child nutrition on Thursday.

The major concern from the group, according to a press release, is “the fact that 71% of 17- to 24-year-olds across the country, and 74% in Arkansas, are ineligible to serve in the military, with obesity being one of the primary disqualifiers.”

The forum featured guest speakers from the organization of over 800 retired generals and admirals, and from the Little Rock School District. The focus of the event was the increased need for school-provided meals and making sure the meals meet nutritional standards.

Stephanie Walker Hynes, child nutrition director for the LRSD, says the number of students getting meals at school has increased since the pandemic began. During the virtual forum she announced one elementary school’s service rose from feeding 200 to 600 students a day.

“In November, we fed over 140,000 breakfasts... that’s a huge testament to the work that we do,” said Hynes.

She added that about half of the district’s roughly 22,000 students are fed at schools each day.

“I would like to see universal meals,” said Hynes, “I feel like if there was a universal meal system like in other countries we could take that off of the plate of worry.”

According to Hynes, LRSD is feeding every child at no cost, thanks in large part to federal funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National School Lunch Program.

She suggested another approach should be directed by school districts, focusing on marketing their nutrition programs to counter the traditionally negative stigma surrounding school lunches.

Lance Whitney, director of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) outreach at the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, said “For every $1 of federal funding, that promotes a minimum $1.50 all the way up to $1.78 into that community because it allows the parents to make it to work, so there’s not missed wages or missed work, allows the children to stay in school.”

Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.
Remington Miller was an intern at KUAR News as part of the George C. Douthit Endowed Scholarship program. She later worked as a reporter and editor for the station.