Brian Burton, the new CEO of the Arkansas Foodbank, describes the current environment for battling hunger as the toughest he’s seen in 20 years. More than 53 million Americans turned to food banks, food pantries and meal programs for help in 2021, one-third more than before the coronavirus outbreak.
That pandemic-enhanced demand hasn’t slackened, and inflationary pressures and supply chain problems have only added pressure.
“I wouldn’t say it was a crisis because I’m not an alarmist, but it’s a challenge right now,” said Burton, who took over leadership of the Little Rock nonprofit on Oct. 10. “We’re all struggling. I call it ‘the Great Compression.’ Everyone is being squeezed. We have to all be scrappy and creative, which are nonprofit strengths.
“We’re in an in-between stage to figure out where we can get more food and pay for more expensive food. We will figure this out and get through this.”
While the Arkansas Foodbank appreciates food donations from individuals, Burton points out that giving money produces a multiplier effect because of the nonprofit’s ability to buy in bulk.
“The dollar donation goes about five times farther,” he said. “We encourage people to make a difference and get food out into the community by making a donation.”
According to Feeding America statistics, 1 out of 7 Arkansans lives in the shadows of food insecurity. Of those 444,130, 138,410 are children.
This year, the food bank has been pressured by rising costs and escalating demand from families living under financial stress.
Nine months into the year, the Arkan-sas Foodbank had already raised nearly $14.4 million, exceeding its annual goal of $11.5 million by 25%.
With a quarter to go, the group was on track but still working to achieve its 2022 goals of distributing 38 million pounds of food and 10 million pounds of produce. As of Sept. 30, the totals stood at more than 30.1 million pounds and more than 8.3 million pounds.
“The community and our food partners have been so extravagantly helpful to us,” Burton said. “We’re like everyone else, figuring things out in a new world environment.
“The bottom line is we’re in a more competitive environment for food, and it’s more expensive and the supply chain is more unreliable. Those factors are squeezing the availability.”
Heightened awareness of food banks during the pandemic helped lower the stigma of families reaching out for assistance.
“We were flooded with food by the federal government through 2021,” Burton said. “Now, there’s just less food in the pipeline.
“We became pretty reliant on USDA TEFAP [the Emergency Food Assistance Program], government commodities providing a vast array of healthy, nutritious, appealing food.
“During COVID, the government really ramped up and provided magnitudes more of that commodity food and paid for transportation and food banks got administrative subsidies to cover warehousing costs. We knew that wouldn’t last forever.”
The scramble to supplement food donations with purchases on the open market has led to bidding wars with for-profit groups and wholesalers.
“After submitting what they thought was a successful bid on a food order, all of a sudden food banks are finding out three or four months later that their bid was canceled probably because someone was willing to pay more for that truckload,” Burton said. “The problem is mainly the supply chain, availability of food. Even with a successful bid, we do have to truck it in, and those rates, I’d say, are 60% higher than a year ago.”
Burton, a 26-year veteran of nonprofit leadership, emerged from a nationwide recruiting effort that produced 130 applicants to succeed Rhonda Sanders as CEO of Arkansas Foodbank.
Most recently, he served more than 11 years as the president and CEO of Three Square Food Bank in Las Vegas. The regional food bank for the four southernmost counties in Nevada operated on a budget of $25 million.
Before that, Burton was executive director of the Wilkinson Center in Dallas, where he worked for 15 years as the chief fundraiser and manager of the $2 million nonprofit that helps low-income families attain financial independence through education and case management.
Over the years, the notion of returning to Arkansas grew for the Ouachita Baptist University grad. His move to Little Rock marked a homecoming.
“Consciously, I never figured a timeline,” said Burton, a product of the Little Rock public school system by way of Brady Elementary, Henderson Middle School and Hall High. “It always pulled me, but I never sought opportunities out before.
“I didn’t think, ‘Wouldn’t that be great to follow Rhonda?’ who I always admired. The timing was right for me. Three Square was in great shape, so I wasn’t leaving anything unfinished there. It just evolved.”
His assessment of the Arkansas Foodbank: wonderful infrastructure with amazing volunteer workspace, ample trucking capacity and abundant institutional know-how.
“The crucial pillars are in place,” Burton said. “Now the focus is on sustainability, food sourcing and making the Arkansas Foodbank the best organization to work for in the state.”
The nonprofit operates from a 12-acre campus at 4301 W. 65th St. in the Little Rock Industrial Park. The land was a December 2007 gift valued at $1 million from 65th Street Land Co. LLC, led by Gene Cauley.
The 77,000-SF facility developed on the site has grown to 100,725 SF through expansions to its warehouse and cold storage capacity.
The Arkansas Foodbank also operates leased distribution sites: a 5,000-SF warehouse in Warren and a 7,500-SF facility in Lexa (Phillips County) that also houses a local food pantry.
2022 Objectives vs. September YTD
► $11.5M goal
► $14.4M so far
► 38M pounds goal
► 30.2M pounds so far
► 10M pounds goal
► 8.3M pounds so far