Newsletter from Wichita State University Community Engagement Institute

Arma Nutrition Council Harvests Healthy Options for Neighbors

The topic of food insecurity is a sensitive one for Arma City
Library director, and president of the Arma Nutrition Council,
Brenda Banks. It’s also a source of motivation.
Her father, whose childhood spanned the late 20s and early
30s, had to take care of his very sick mother who wasn’t able to
work or afford food. Sometimes he would even have to fish for their
meals. Banks says, “[Food insecurity] is very personal to me. My
father made the commitment to himself that, if he ever had any
children, he would make sure they never went hungry; and we
didn’t. We were fortunate that we ended up living on a farm with
livestock and had a big garden. Now, whenever I see a child or a
person who needs food, I see my father, that little boy in frayed
overalls, having to provide for his sick mother and
always struggling to find food until he entered the Navy.”
Banks mirrors her father’s commitment to children and
families through the work she and the Arma Nutrition Council have
been doing in Crawford County to address severe food insecurity.
The superintendent of the local schools reported to Banks that 75
percent of their students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and
about 43 percent of Arma’s population of 1,481 live under the
federal poverty line. Banks spearheaded a summer lunch program
that, for the past 5 years, has served about 100 kids per day out of
the Arma City Library through a partnership with the USDA.
Another local group facing serious barriers to healthy food is
the older disabled population. There are about 97 designated
disabled apartment units in the city whose residents do not have
access to transportation to the nearest grocer, ten miles away.
Their only option is to cross a busy highway to get to the Dollar
General. This is the only option for many others in Arma too.
Vice president of the Arma Nutrition Council, Susan Robinson,
says, “We haven’t had a grocery store around for about 5 years.
There’s lots of people who live on disability and Social Security
[paychecks]. A lot of us don’t drive and you have to go about 15
miles to get any groceries as the ‘dollar store’ does not have
produce.”
The members of the Arma Nutrition Council and other
residents brought all of this personal insight and experience to the
table two years ago when Community Liaison, Matt O’Malley,
started hosting community conversations at the Arma City Library,
known locally as “the living room of the community.” Over a span of
two months, four community conversations were held and, by the
fourth one, the meeting space was overflowing with about 55
people in attendance. O’Malley said, “We automatically had
legitimacy because the Library invited us. That was so important to
our work because we had to understand that was the trusted place
in the community. People began feeling inspired to emerge as
leaders.”
In the two years since, those residents have operated
together as the Arma Nutrition Council, which has about 40 official
members and a Board of four resident leaders. Robert Snare,
treasurer of the Council, said, “Being on the team presented
something that was entirely new to the community. We didn’t find
resistance to change in leadership. It was a natural fit for us to get
involved because I’m a businessperson by profession and my wife
has been a supervisor as a nurse back in Johnson County.”
Together, the Arma Nutrition Council has achieved much for
the food system of Arma. Initially, the Council collaborated with the
crowd-funding nonprofit ioby toward a goal of raising $3,000 that
would be matched by both a community foundation and the Kansas
Health Foundation. Their plan was to set up a community garden
and a pantry in the Library in order to increase access to produce in
Arma. They also initiated a companion fund-raising strategy, asking
each person for $2. Council secretary, Sherry Snare, reached out to
the school and local banks, successfully securing donations there,
too. People from around town, many of whom have limited income,
also brought their crumpled $2 bills to Banks at the Library. Within a
mere 24 days, their fund-raising goal was met! Susan Robinson, was
elated. “I’m just proud of everyone that’s contributed in some way. It
doesn’t have to be the physical work. Arma’s been a close-knit
community for so long but, when I first arrived here about 48 years
ago, I was an outsider back then. It’s all changed!”
In July, 2019, the Council members began planting the garden
and purchased a refrigerator, storage racks, and bins to begin
stocking the Library pantry with produce. With the help of donated
seeds and the funding they had secured, the garden is now
producing enough to fill monthly food boxes for 45 families, on top of
the produce that is readily available at the pantry for anyone.
Additionally, the Salvation Army has reached out to the Council and
has been supplementing the produce with other commodities.
Another valuable partnership for the Council has been with
the city government of Arma. It agreed to pay for the water used in
the garden and will soon raise awareness of the pantry program with
a notice printed on residents’ monthly electric bills. Sherry Snare has
continued communicating with the school about eventually
implementing a pantry in the high school, a project currently on hold
due to the Covid-19 crisis.
Covid-19 has also prevented the Council from meeting
regularly over the past several months, delaying the planned start of
gardening classes and the recruitment of additional volunteers to
maintain the garden. However, the officers all echo a common
optimism for the year ahead and those to come. Matt O’Malley says,
“The members of the Council inspire me because they care. It’s their
biggest strength. It’s wild to think these were people that first came
together almost two years ago, and they’re excited to be changemakers every single month. After every meeting, I leave happier than
when I arrived!” Robert Snare reports that, in the coming months,
they will be responding to community members’ nutrition interests by
planting more tomatoes, corn, zucchini, broccoli, and potatoes. They
have also grown lettuce, carrots, peas, and radishes.
When the officers look back at their efforts and at how the
garden has grown, they feel a sense of pride. Sherry Snare says,
“It’s just kind of exciting! I showed the garden to a friend from Florida
when she was here and she told me, too, ‘You helped start it, and I’m
so proud of you!’” Brenda Banks says, “I will be eternally grateful to
have this opportunity in my life. It really makes you feel that you want
to live beyond your life. It’s really a gift to me.”

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