JONESBORO – The Arkansas State University College of Agriculture Meat Market will partner with Arkansas Hunters Feeding the Hungry (AHFH) to produce and distribute shelf snack sticks for school children across the state in efforts to battle food insecurity.
According to the USDA Economic Research Service, nearly 17 percent of Arkansas households were food insecure at some point between 2020 and 2022 – the highest percentage in the United States. Feeding America reports that some 467,550 people in Arkansas face hunger, and 134,690 of them are children – meaning 1 in 5 children face food insecurity.
Deboned, frozen pieces of venison from deer processors in Arkansas will be sent to the state-of-the-art A-State Meat Market in Jonesboro. Students and campus staff then process the meat and package the snack sticks in vacuumed-packaged bags with two sticks per pack. Agriculture students will gain additional experience in meat processing and packaging to complement the lab’s existing retail operations.
Hunters Feeding the Hungry, a nonprofit organization, was organized in 2000 to help alleviate hunger in the state by providing wild game meat to food pantries and shelters across Arkansas at no charge to the food pantries. Since its inception, hunters have donated more than 1 million pounds to provide over 5 million servings of healthy wild game meat. The organization will organize distribution to schools throughout Arkansas.
“Five years ago, we looked at childhood hunger, especially in the school system and on weekends,” said Ronnie Ritter, director of HFH. “We did a small run of shelf stable snack sticks and handed them out to children at an event at First National Bank Arena at A-State. We soon realized that the children loved them and wanted more. We then contacted schools to see if they would be interested and received an overwhelming positive response. That was five years ago, and the only place that made shelf stable snack sticks was in Missouri.
The organization recently learned about the expanded Meat Market operation at A-State, and the university was eager to partner in this effort to address childhood hunger in Arkansas. About 1,000 pounds of meat are being processed at A-State, with another 700-800 pounds expected to be delivered in the coming weeks. The entities expect to produce between 40,000 and 50,000 packages throughout the season through February, Ritter said.
“We are proud to announce today that we are partnering with Arkansas State University to produce all the snack sticks going forward,” Ritter said. “The newly renovated facility is the first state plant licensed by the state, and students have the opportunity to learn and create a variety of food products from fresh to full-cooked.”
Arkansas Department of Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward announced in March that the A-State Meat Market was among the first two facilities licensed by the Arkansas Meat Inspection Program, which was authorized by Act 418 of 2021 and finalized through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. The program allows the state department to inspect meat products for shipment within Arkansas, and it sets A-State on a path to become a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspected facility.
“”We’re excited to have played a small role in today’s announcement between Arkansas State University and Arkansas Hunters Feeding the Hungry,” Ward said. “Helping address food insecurity challenges, increasing the availability of locally sourced protein, and providing hands-on agricultural education opportunities for the next generation of leaders; this is a perfect example of what can happen when we all work together.”
In 2021, the A-State College of Agriculture received a $500,000 grant to expand and improve its Meat Market lab space through the Arkansas Meat and Poultry Processing Grant Program in 2020. The project was designed to advance the skills of students and overall safety of meats.
Dr. Mickey LaTour, dean of the A-State College of Agriculture, said the partnership serves a significant statewide need – especially helping children with a food source during weekends – while fulfilling education objectives and supporting the growing operation on campus.
“This is the kind of opportunity and partnership we envisioned as we sought to expand the campus operation and elevate the profile of our agriculture program while serving the community,” LaTour said. “We’re very happy to work with Ronnie and his life-changing organization. And we wouldn’t be here today without the funding support of Arkansas Department of Agriculture, Secretary Wes Ward and the legislature.”
The snack stick project is led by Meat Market manager Corey Readnour, who worked closely with students, LaTour and Associate Dean Donald “Bud” Kennedy on the final product.
“This partnership helps address a substantial need in the state, and this is what Arkansas State is all about,” A-State Chancellor Todd Shields said. “I’m proud to know our students, faculty and staff will be part of a significant effort to help ensure kids don’t go hungry in our state. We’re grateful to Ronnie, his organization and the hunters who make this food source possible, and also to our state leadership for providing funding for us to pursue solution-based projects.”
About 400,000 meat stick packages have been distributed to 100 school districts by AHFH since 2018, with thousands of students served. The meat sticks are gluten-free, LaTour said, but they are not processed in a totally gluten-free facility so the university cannot guarantee no cross contamination. Venison is a very lean protein, so the recipe includes pork fat and various seasonings to optimize the flavor