A Fort Smith sack lunch program sees a dramatic increase in the number of people who need food. Volunteers with the St. John’s Episcopal Church Sack Lunch Program say the month of April hit and all time high serving free lunches since the program began in 2003.
The Baloney Sandwich Index was created by Ken Kupchick with the River Valley Food Bank to measure the correlation between the number of sack lunches given away to the unemployment rate in Fort Smith and Sebastian County. According to the index, Kupchick says the demand for food is already up more than 18% compared to last year.
Every day volunteers hand out free lunches to hundreds of hungry people in Sebastian County.
"I'm homeless and I come down here every day to get food for everybody," said Lana Fisher.
Some in line, like Fisher, said they’re out of work and in a tough economy it’s getting more difficult to pay for a meal.
Father Mike Lager with St. Johns said on average, the program serves about 4,500 lunches a month. He says that number spiked by nearly a thousand in January. According to the index, April showed the most dramatic increase, up 50% from the same month last year. Father Lager says an average of 164.5 lunches go out every day.
Co-director of the program Jean Kolljeski said volunteers are noticing people in need of food are coming from all over the area.
"By car, by public transportation, by bike, it's not just people who live in this downtown area," said Kolljeski.
According to Kupchick, the increased number of lunches indicates the next unemployment figures might be higher than expected. He says the Baloney Sandwich Index shows about a 70% correlation with the number of unemployed in Fort Smith and Sebastian County compared to how many sack lunches are given away each month.
"The food bank distributed almost 50,000 more pounds of food in Sebastian County during April as it did in January," said Kupchick.
Kolljeski said volunteers are also seeing an increase in the number of children coming to get a free sack lunch.
“It used to be we saw no children in this line, now we're seeing an average of about 375 lunches per month go to children," said Kolljeski.
She said the program is adding milk, juice, and more fruit to provide a more nutritious meal for kids.
For those like Fisher, they say they’re grateful to have people in the area provide them with food during a difficult time.
"If it wasn't here then I don't know what everybody else would do," said Fisher.
Anyone who needs a meal can get one of the sack lunches. They're served Monday through Friday from 8:30a.m. to 9a.m. and 11:30a.m. to noon across from St. John’s Episcopal Church on 6th Street in Fort Smith.
The program depends on donations and members of the community to keep running. If you’re interested in volunteering or donating to the program, call St. John’s Episcopal Church at 479-782-9912.