Antioch for Youth and Family was able to serve more than 6,100 children fresh fruits and vegetables in one week through its new Antioch in Schools program.

Foods from Walmart stores are being transported through the River Valley Regional Food Bank to Antioch for fast delivery. Some of the produce is also making its way into the homes of veterans and the elderly through Antioch's mobile food pantry.

Charolette Tidwell, founder and president of the local nonprofit organization, has formed partnerships with local schools in the past. So she was the person to call for the regional food bank's director, Tracy Engel.

Tidwell could be seen Thursday at Antioch’s food pantry under renovation on North 32nd Street working with long-term volunteers Jan Whitmore and Nina Delt to divvy up produce such as prepackaged baby spinach, squash, cantaloupes, grapefruits, pears, apples and oranges that were donated by Walmart. There were also several boxes of jalapeno and habanero peppers.

“It’s good, quality food,” Antioch consultant Ken Kupchick said. “Walmart just has very strict guidelines and they take their mission seriously so these foods are rejected for reasons other than quality.”

Kupchick holds up a grapefruit with no visible signs of defect other than some small blemishes, and some peppers that are only slightly wrinkled. In most household kitchens these would still be considered ripe and ready to eat.

Antioch already feeds about 7,000 people a month in the River Valley, including many at local schools. The Antioch in Schools program puts that number well over 10,000 people a month. The nonprofit has gained national attention over the years for its mission of feeding the hungry, including Tidwell being named in November as one of 10 Women of Worth honorees by L’Oréal Paris.

“We’ll keep moving it as long as Walmart wants to give it,” Tidwell said.

When it comes time to load up the food and take it to the schools, student council teams from each school do some of the heavy lifting at the pantry. Kupchick showed a picture of the children in an assembly line moving produce with big smiles on their faces. One picture captures an image of a boy with a big smile, proudly holding up a bag of oranges.

“We’ve had children tell us they’ve never had a grapefruit, or orange juice,” Kupchick said.

In the past three weeks, Antioch has placed thousands of pounds of fresh produce in local schools. Kupchick estimates up to 50,000 pounds. Several more schools were visited Friday. The schools with the highest need were visited first. Demand is based on the percentage of students in the free or reduced lunch program.

Dozens of "thank you" cards were written by the students and given to Antioch.

The great paradox of food insecurity, Kupchick says, is that those who are most in need of food in America are at highest risk of obesity, diabetes and hypertension.

“Eating healthy costs more,” Kupchick said. “In America, it costs more to buy a peach than to buy a hamburger. We see that every day as people opt for high carb, high processed, high sugar foods because they're cheap and convenient compared to parishable foods. We see people opting for frozen burritos to fill their belly instead of fill a lifetime."

Kupchick noted that Arkansas is the top five states in the nation for diabetes, one of the top three states in obesity, and an estimated 85,000 people in the Fort Smith region have diabetes with another 75,000 on the verge of getting it. Arkansas is also high in juvenile diabetes, Kupchick said.

"The Robert Wood Johnson foundation tells us we're not active and not eating right," Kupchick adds. "Thankfully, we have new trails and are getting a skate park. We're seeing Fort Smith become more active, and thankfully with the pantry and these efforts, we're trending health."

Antioch Food Pantry update

The Antioch for Youth and Family’s new 10,000 square-foot food pantry at 1420 N. 32nd St. in Fort Smith has seen continual improvements since August when design plans by James R. Childers Architects in Fort Smith were unveiled. Volunteers cleared the former River Valley Regional Food Bank out of debris. Several local and out-of-state businesses have donated equipment, materials either for free or at deep discounts, Kupchick said.

Uneven floors between the three add-ons were made even for easy movement of food by forklift. With weather having warmed up slightly in the afternoons, painters were on the job Thursday.

Antioch board members are currently waiting for a bid to install new electrical lines to run LED lighting. The job is expected to cost about $75,000, Kupchick said, which is about two times more than expected. Renovations on the panty were expected to be completed by March.

Relying partially on in-kind work by local contractors is also creating a slight delay, Kupchick added, because "business is booming" and construction workers must do their money-making jobs before they can get to help nonprofits.

The food pantry renovation project was estimated to cost about $250,000 and is being helped along by a $50,000 community improvement grant from The Sunderland Foundation of Kansas City. Another $200,000 challenge grant was offered recently by a yet-to-be-named entity.

The challenge for Antioch is to raise $50,000 to get the $200,000. That amount is expected to be enough to finish the building.

Antioch has been in operation since 2000. The first six weeks of 2018 has seen 92,000 pounds of food moved by Antioch, a 60 percent increase from the year before.