For this week’s Hometown Heroes, AY About You sits down with Renne and John Bethel, the chairs of Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance’s upcoming Hunger Action Breakfast, which is this Friday, Sept. 17.
The following is a Q&A between AY and the Bethels, letting us know more about who they are and the work that they do.
AY: Tell us a little bit about yourselves.
John: I grew up in Benton. I received a Bachelor of Science in Business from the University of Arkansas in 1986 and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 1993. I worked for Worthen Bank for two years and then worked for the Arkansas Public Service Commission for almost 30 years, serving as the Executive Director for 18 years. I joined Entergy Arkansas as the Director of Public Affairs in 2018. I work with elected officials and other leaders in Arkansas to develop policies that are beneficial for Arkansas, our customers, the communities we serve and our company.
Renee: I grew up in Mount Ida and Benton. I received a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from the University of Central Arkansas in 1988, a Certificate of Dietetic Internship from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 1990, and a Master of Science in Clinical Nutrition from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 1995. I am a long-time employee of Arkansas Children’s Hospital and have served in several different positions since I began in 1988. Most of my experience has been in the field of Inborn Errors of Metabolism. As a Metabolic Dietitian, I work with a small population of people of all ages that have specific and often severe food restrictions. Food insecurity for those with diet restrictions is an issue that must be resolved before their treatment can be effective.
John & Renee: We have four children: Hannah Johnson and her husband Cody; Boyce Bethel; and Henry Bethel. We enjoy spending time with our family and friends, cooking, hiking and traveling.
AY: tell us a little bit about your organization. What do they do? How does it work? When were they founded and why?
John & Renee: The Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance is a collaborative organization that works on behalf of and with Arkansans facing hunger, and it is the only statewide hunger relief agency in Arkansas. The Alliance was founded in 2004 by the state’s six Feeding America food banks: the Arkansas Foodbank, the Food Bank of North Central Arkansas, the Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas, Harvest Regional Food Bank, River Valley Regional Food Bank and the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank. The Alliance coordinates with the food bank partners, school districts throughout the state, hundreds of member organizations and nonprofits, as well as many corporate, state and local partners to approach hunger relief in a comprehensive way.
AY: How did you get involved with the Alliance?
John & Renee: Julia Child said, “People who love food are the best people.” We both grew up in families who loved to cook and loved to enjoy spending time with family and friends gathered around the table. We both learned at an early age the importance of welcoming others and helping to feed others. As our children were growing up, we took the opportunity to take them to the local food bank to volunteer with church groups and with their friends. We took our children to volunteer at the Arkansas Rice Depot and we participated in food drives and in preparing pre-packaged meals with several organizations. Throughout her career, Renee has had the opportunity to assist patients and their families in accessing various programs to address hunger and food insecurity including WIC and SNAP. John has known Kathy Webb for several years, first when she served in the Arkansas General Assembly, and later when she became a Little Rock City Director and CEO of the Alliance. He appreciated her friendship and remained interested in her work with the Alliance. Our involvement with the Alliance began in early 2020 when retired Entergy employee Linda Barnes visited with John about the opportunity to serve on the Alliance Board. Following those conversations, Kathy contacted John and invited him to join the Board. Since then, we have been engaged with the work of the Alliance.
AY: Can you tell us about the upcoming Hunger Action Breakfast event?
John & Renee: September is Hunger Action Month, and it provides an opportunity to educate our neighbors and to take action to alleviate hunger. The Alliance initiated the Hunger Action Breakfast as an opportunity to recognize Hunger Heroes who are some of the individuals, businesses, and organizations from across the state that has gone above and beyond during the past year to help end hunger and food insecurity in Arkansas over the past year. It also provides an opportunity to raise support for the Alliance to help advance its mission throughout the year. Ordinarily, it would be an in-person event with live awards presentations and recognition of some of the leaders in the field. This year, we break from our traditional in-person event and are hosting a virtual event on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. The good news is that by holding a virtual event, more people should be able to participate and celebrate some of our hunger heroes.
AY: what are some of the struggles that your organization has faced? How did the pandemic impact operations?
John & Renee: The pandemic has had a devastating impact on the people the Alliance serves. Hunger has soared over the past year, and more Arkansas families and individuals are struggling to put food on their tables. The Alliance has worked with its partners to meet this increased need in a variety of ways, including:
- Securing food and resources for the emergency food network.
- Increasing participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) through outreach.
- Increasing participation in USDA child nutrition programs, as lead partner in the No Kid Hungry campaign, through working with state and federal agencies to seek waivers that have allowed pantries expanded flexibility for food distribution, and out of school programs and school districts flexibility in how they serve meals to children
- Improving financial management skills through evidence-based cooking and shopping classes as part of the Cooking Matters nutrition education program
- Advocating for public policy that removes barriers to accessing nutritious food.
AY: How can people get involved with your organization?
John & Renee: Individuals and organizations who are interested in helping to end hunger and food insecurity in Arkansas can contribute to the Hunger Action Breakfast by visiting the Alliance at Arhungeralliance.org and making a contribution. During the Hunger Action Breakfast, individuals can also contribute to the Alliance by texting ZEROHUNGER to 243-725. Individuals and organizations can also join the Alliance as members and can participate in the activities of the Alliance through financial support and volunteering their time throughout the year. We encourage your readers to consider joining the Alliance and helping make an impact in Arkansas.