Sunday, March 3, 2024

Arkansas Rice Companies Partner with University of Arkansas Campus Food Pantry

⋅ BY ROBBY EDWARDS ⋅
Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences

In 2023, three Arkansas-based rice companies helped address food insecurity at the University of Arkansas by donating hundreds of pounds of rice to the Jane B. Gearhart Full Circle Food Pantry.

Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station director Jean-Francois Meullenet, left, and assistant director Nathan McKinney, right, joined student volunteers Katelyn Helberg and Caroline Wilson for the intake of rice donations to the Jane B. Gearhart Full Circle Food Pantry at the University of Arkansas.
Karli Yarber/University of Arkansas

Cormier Rice Milling Co., Riceland, and Producers Rice Mill donated to the food pantry and pledged to donate even more. Cormier recently sent 625 pounds to Fayetteville while Riceland and Producers sent 200 pounds each, with more to follow.

Caroline Wilson, the chair for Full Circle Food Pantry, emphasized the needs of the pantry. She noted how demand for rice means it goes quickly at the pantry.

“Rice is a staple crop and food that so many people use every single day,” Wilson said. “We have a lot of international students on campus who are clients at our pantry because, for international students, we are the only food resource that they are allowed to use. Most food assistance programs are limited to U.S. citizens only. For our international clients, this is literally their only option.”

Wilson also explained international students at the University of Arkansas on a visa struggle more because they legally cannot work more than 20 hours weekly. This creates strain on finances and the ability to afford groceries and other essentials.

“It’s really important for us to provide foods that are used daily in people’s diets,” she said. “The rice on our shelves right now may look like a lot, but that will not even last us through the semester. We just go through it so quickly because it’s something that so many people love.”

Katelyn Helberg, the alternative assistance coordinator for the pantry, also said the pantry is often in need of rice.

“Rice is something that a lot of our clients typically want,” Helberg said “We’re currently serving around 1,100 clients a month. You can imagine how many people we’re trying to distribute to, and rice is something more expensive for us to buy and supply in the pantry.”

Back in the fall 2022 semester, a group of students visited with the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences Dean’s Partnership Council. The students shared information about food insecurity on campus with Jean-Francois Meullenet, interim dean of the college.

Meullenet, while serving as interim dean since July 2022, is also senior associate vice president for agriculture research with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture and director of the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station. Meullenet recognized an opportunity to use his food industry connections to help.

“We are the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences, and that ‘food’ part is very important,” Meullenet said. “It was eye-opening to learn how many people in our community are in need of food. I have connections with industry, so contacting them was really just an easy first step in assisting the food pantry.” 

Meullenet worked with Nathan McKinney, assistant director of the experiment station, to coordinate the rice donations.

Wilson said McKinney came to the pantry first with a generous donation. While there, he offered his business card and said if the pantry ever needed more rice, to contact him.

“So, we did,” Wilson said. “And we’ve continued that partnership, even when there were times when there wasn’t any rice available to donate. He stayed connected and let us know as soon as there was availability. It’s been so impactful to have that reliable source of donations coming in.”

McKinney gives all credit to the producers in the state.

“Arkansas rice producers and rice millers have always been generous and gracious with their products, and they will continue to do so.” McKinney said. “They have pledged to give even more in the future.”

“They always give to efforts like this,” Meullenet said. “They will just bring entire pallets of bags of rice and I can tell they are excited to be aware of a need that serves a community well, like the Full Circle Food Pantry.”

“We’re just so appreciative of this donation and all donations that come into the pantry,” Wilson said. “I’m really excited to continue any and all partnerships that come our way.”

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