Arkansas Food Banks Expand Programs and Partnerships with Data

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Joining food banks across the state, the River Valley Regional Food Bank will begin using a new data collection program during food distributions this month.

All six Feeding America food banks in Arkansas will use Oasis Insight Plus, a Service Insights cloud-based database that will allow organizations to collect information about food pantry customers.

“This will help us secure the grants we need to implement these programs and fill these gaps because it will give us a complete picture of where the gaps are … in our eight-county service area,” said DeLandy Russell, agency relations volunteer coordinator and Service Insights coordinator for the River Valley Regional Food Bank.

During monthly USDA product distributions at the River Valley Regional Food Bank, Russell will enter customer information into the Oasis Insight Plus program, including name, date of birth, household size and demographic information. Social security numbers will not be requested.

Prior to the program, households receiving commodities had to have a white paper card with their information.

“This program takes that away,” Russell said. “It makes us essentially paperless. For a food bank that has so few staff like us, this will help. Instead of going out, writing down people’s names, going in and filling out cards – which is a two-day process between handing out and making the cards – it’s all done in the vehicle when we check them in.

The River Valley Regional Food Bank also trains its partner food pantries who distribute USDA products to use the program.

The information gathered will help the food bank better understand customer needs and see levels of food insecurity in the area. It will also help customers follow USDA commodity distribution standards.

“You’re supposed to get produce once a month at one location,” said Tracy Engel, manager of the River Valley Regional Food Bank. “As we engage with these USDA member agencies, we will be able to tell if that person has been served this month.”

Program Impact in Northwest Arkansas

The Oasis Insight Plus program rolled out statewide this year was first implemented at the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank in 2017.

Casey Cowan, director of customer services for the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, was hired in 2016 to help the organization establish a program with a grant from the Walmart Foundation “that would allow us to learn who we serve”.

“It allowed us to do things that we otherwise couldn’t have done if we hadn’t paid attention to who we were serving,” Cowan said.

A new program implemented due to new data provided culturally sensitive foods.

“The goal was for us to design better programs and better serve our neighbors, so we’re looking at everything… [including] culturally appropriate foods because we know that in some areas we serve a higher Latinx population,” Cowan said.

The new data also helped the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank add an additional mobile pantry in a much-needed area. The mobile pantry program currently makes 16 stops per month in northwest Arkansas.

“When we went to Prairie Grove … we realized a lot of our customers were from Lincoln because we were entering their addresses,” Cowan said. “…We serve more people in Lincoln than in Prairie Grove, so this helped us know to open a new location.

With the success of the program in northwest Arkansas, the directors of the six Feeding America food banks met in 2021 to plan the rollout of the program across the state.

Cowan, Engel and Russell each highlighted the program’s security, including software encryption and limited access by specific, trained staff and volunteers.

Fighting Hunger in Arkansas

The future of the program holds high hopes for food bank leaders, including building on strong relationships between different regions of the state.

Following the implementation of the release of information forms, food banks plan to share anonymized data with Feeding America and with other Arkansas food banks, “so we can say as a state, this is who we serve,” Cowan said.

Anonymized data and demographic information will also help food banks paint a picture of their services and impact for donors and grant applications.

“It helps us tell our story,” Cowan said.

Sign up for USDA products

This month’s USDA product giveaway will take place from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. while supplies last, Tuesday, February 15, at the River Valley Regional Food Bank.

Recipients” must live in AR and have a valid ID. If your ID is not from AR, you must provide proof of AR address i.e. utility bill public in your name and declare your income yourself”, according to the Crawford-Sebastian Community Development Council website.

Registration forms for USDA products can be completed in the lobby of the River Valley Regional Food Bank, 1617 South Zero St. in Fort Smith.

For more information, contact DeLandy Russell at (479) 785-0582 or email him at [email protected]

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