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Governor Beebe's weekly column and radio address: Progress In Fighting Hunger

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One of the pleasures of the holiday season comes from the joy we witness on the faces of children. However, we are also reminded of the children throughout Arkansas and America who do not lead happy, healthy lives. More than 24 percent of children in this state are uncertain whether they will have enough to eat on a regular basis. But our work never stops to improve the health of Arkansas’s children, and we end 2013 with positive news about our efforts.

We have put forth a great deal of effort to fight hunger in Arkansas, and specifically childhood hunger. By helping the youngest Arkansans gain access to nourishing food, we can preserve opportunities for better health and more success for an entire future generation.

A big piece of that effort has been our summer feeding program. Many children do not have dependable sources of meals during the day when school is not in session. We’ve worked each year to expand summer meals into more and more of our communities. In December, we’ve received the final tallies of the program’s reach in 2013. Through our summer feeding program this year, we fed 64 percent more people than we did in 2012. A total of 3.7 million meals were provided at more than 750 sites statewide.

This success will breed more success, because it gives Arkansas access to more federal funding to fight hunger. These are funds we need, because even with this increase, we’re still feeding only a fraction of the children in the summer that we feed during the school year.

We also need to continue expanding our network of summer feeding partners. Through the Arkansas Department of Human Services, nonprofit organizations can provide volunteers to serve summer meals to children at no cost. Arkansas DHS even provides training and technical assistance to help organizations set up and operate a summer food program.

On another health front, we continue to show progress in reducing youth smoking rates in this 15th year after the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. Arkansas ranks 7th in the nation for our efforts to prevent or end teenage smoking. Since the tobacco settlement, teen smoking in Arkansas has dropped by 58%. This continued drop helps to improve the health of our children and reduces future health-care costs in our State.

With the onset of 2014, our work continues, particularly in continuing to fight hunger. There are still some counties in our State without a single summer feeding site. Roughly one-in-five Arkansans are uncertain where their next meal will come from. And Arkansas still ranks too poorly in national measurements of hunger.

Our goal is to feed 93,000 kids this next year through our Summer Food Service Program. With more sites, more volunteers and more sponsors, it is a goal within our reach. We all count our blessings during the holidays, and then we keep working to ensure that more Arkansans can share those blessings in the days and months ahead.