Senior National Editor
Just before Thanksgiving last year, I wrote about the struggles of the River Valley Regional Food Bank in Fort Smith, Arkansas, to meet growing demands for help.
In that article I mentioned the “baloney sandwich index” created by Ken Kupchick, the marketing and development director of the food bank, to measure the rise and fall of need in the eight-county area of West Central Arkansas it serves. The index is named for a staple in the meals served by a small soup kitchen the food bank operates in downtown Fort Smith, whose mission is “to serve a simple lunch to the homeless while respecting their dignity,” according to Kupchick.
The recipe, according to Kupchick, is simple: “Pulled from the retail shelves donated white bread, mustard no mayo (mayo is too expensive) and one slice of bologna, no cheese.” On occasion, the food bank substitute peanut butter-and-jelly and on some Fridays a tuna sandwich is available. Kupchick noted with pride volunteers who spend their own money to provide a once-a-month alternative of a pulled pork or brisket sandwich, while a local restaurant has supplemented the meal with a weekly offering of soup.
Until 2008, when the recession hit, the kitchen served 2,500-3,000 bagged lunches a month. “We were astounded when the number jumped to 4,000,” Kupchick said.
Kupchick was curious about the trend line so he gathered figures dating back to 2003. He factored in unemployment reports for Fort Smith and surrounding Sebastian County and the “baloney sandwich index” was born.
Six months later I’ve heard again from Kupchick and the outlook from Fort Smith is gloomy.
“Sandwiches served at the St. John's Sack Lunch Program during April 2012 not only set a historical record for the month by eclipsing prior year service by nearly 50% but reversed a two-month downward trend in the Baloney Sandwich Index. The Index shattered records back in January at 186.5, but then saw an easing of demand which reversed the index in February and March. April's Index at 164.5 signals both a surge in need and predicts harsher unemployment rates.” Kupchick informs CNN.
Jim Horton, a volunteer at the kitchen, told Kupchick, "The most dramatic change in our demographics has been in the increase of children and the number of families coming from neighborhoods away from the downtown area. These are families who are obviously living on the edge and utilize the sack lunch program to supplement their families' food budget."
The food bank distributed almost 50,000 more pounds of food in Sebastian County during April than it did in January. Demand in 2012 is up more than 18 percent compared with the same period in 2011.
Kupchick says that the “baloney sandwich index" has a 70 percent correlation with Sebastian County unemployment numbers, signaling a potential jump in the county and metro unemployment rates. Sebastian County unemployment saw a significant drop from a high of 8.5 percent in January to 7.6 percent in March. Fort Smith metro unemployment reached 8.7 percent in October 2011 but was down to 7.8 percent by March of this year.
"It will now be interesting to see if the downward trend indeed heads north based on the Baloney Index," Kupchick said.
That may be more likely than not.
“We are very worried.” Krupchick wrote, “with the scheduled closing of our longstanding Whirlpool operation on June 29. It's been a looming fear - both a concern for the soon to be jobless and their families and a concern for how our community will be able to absorb the loss. Leading up to that, while our metro unemployment rate is down, the number of employed people are also down. Without a doubt, people have given up looking for work.”
The Whirlpool plant closure will result in the loss of another 917 jobs – all that remains from more than 4,500 the plant employed in early 2006. The loss of local suppliers and ripple effects could cost the community another 300 jobs.
Kupchick finds a few silver linings in the clouds. He says tourism jobs are increasing in Northwest Arkansas, as is home building in the region. There are efforts to find a buyer for the Whirlpool complex. The closed military base at Fort Chaffee is being prepared for commercial, residential and retail uses.
“For us at the food bank, it's the tender stories of individuals seeking help in desperation and echoes the loudest,” Kupchick said, telling this story: “A mother of two contacted me over our Facebook page on May 2. She writes, "My family of 5 receives food stamps but it isn't enough to get by on all month. After we pay all the bills, we rarely have any money left over for extra food or clothes or some necessities. We go to our area food banks in Van Buren once a month, but for some reason this month we ran out of food and are struggling to get by until the 12th when the food stamps are available again. I'm scared my children will go hungry until the. Is there a way you can help us?" After connecting her with help, she wrote back, "Ok, thanks I really appreciate it. You might just have kept my kids from going hungry. Thanks for all you do."
“I heard this morning that she showed up at a church pantry with her children in tow. Her head was down in shame. There were tears in her eyes. My compatriot told me from the sound of her voice she must have been crying all day and consumed with worry. They were able to send her home with boxes of good food and a promise to help more later down the road. I can't describe what kind of feeling inside you get from the front lines. You know you helped, but you know that there is anguish that precedes and will undoubtedly follow. It's heartwarming and unsettling at the same time.”