FORT SMITH — Founder Charolette Tidwell started the Antioch Youth and Family nonprofit group knowing nothing about running a food pantry, but did have experience in health care and knowledge of the needs of River Valley residents.
Nearly 22 years later, the group now provides more than 800,000 meals for more than 10,400 people each year.
Tidwell credits that to the numerous programs, countless volunteers and growing location at 1122 N. 11th St.
Antioch’s website notes it comes from Tidwell’s passion and determination, which is what also led her to be one of the first Black women to attend Sparks School of Nursing. She also worked her way from charge nurse to head nurse in intensive care and finally the director of medical and surgical nursing in a matter of six years.
“I was in health care, so I saw the physical problems. I saw the mental anguish of clients. But I didn’t do it from a food perspective,” Tidwell said.
Tidwell explained Antioch’s mission is “feeding the body, feeding the mind and feeding the spirit with purpose and persistence.” She thinks identifying issues with purpose and persistence is what builds the utopia every community should strive for.
One purpose Antioch has identified is providing food and nutrition information to area children through the juvenile court system, providing mentoring, workforce, case work and emergency shelter programs for 13 years.
Antioch also helps students in Fort Smith and Van Buren public schools by providing educational programs for all grade levels; helping them participate in regional, state, national and international food competitions; and delivering fruits and vegetables to them twice a month since 2009.
“They will see our trucks roll up, and some of the fruits they’ve never seen. I was shocked at kids that said they had never seen a nectarine,” Tidwell said.
Prior to the covid-19 pandemic, Tidwell said they were working with Northside and Southside high school students so they could volunteer and provide nutrition information to the community. She said with the help of Harps Food Store, students handed out $10 fruit and vegetable vouchers in a program called Double Up Bucks.
“Harps could not keep enough fruits and vegetables because of the number of kids and the number of people that came,” Tidwell recalled.
“I am very grateful for the work that Charolette Tidwell does for and on behalf of FSPS students and families,” said Terry Morawski, School District superintendent. “She is a perfect illustration of the grit and determination needed to address the immediate needs presented by food insecurity, as well as the perseverance necessary to find long-term solutions.”
Tidwell was at Harps roughly 20 years ago when she got the idea for another program to assist the elderly.
“This older lady was in the checkout counter before me,” she said. “She had eight or nine cans of cat food and dog food. The checker recorded her name and phone number. So when I got up to the line, I said ‘Why did you record her name and phone number?’ The checker told me that the elderly were eating that for their protein. Eating cat food and dog food.
“So I launched 14 complexes within Fort Smith and Van Buren. The elderly are either in apartments or some homes where we deliver once a month, at least 100 pounds of food. The five levels of good nutrition, every client gets from us.”
Antioch created curbside pickup and drive-through options when their monthly knock-and-drop program was impacted by the pandemic, which feeds a couple thousand people each week and more than 10,000 people for their most recent Thanksgiving meal at Martin Luther King Park.
“The pandemic has just upheaved everything. I want this thing gone. Any family, any individual can access food from us every month. And then they’ll drive through outside. It’s four times more a month that we can assist them with nutritious food,” Tidwell said.
Police Chief Danny Baker recalled providing safety and traffic control for a Thanksgiving meal is what started a years-long partnership between Antioch and his department.
Early in the pandemic, the department was concerned with the possibility of increased domestic violence and child abuse cases while people were in quarantine, Baker said. They realized there was a connection between some of these cases and the people involved struggling with food insecurity, so they partnered with Antioch and local faith-based organizations to create the Food Patrol, he said.
“The whole idea behind it was to go to the high-crime areas or high-risk areas, have a police officer set up a vehicle, open the back, set up a table and start giving away sack lunches, with our primary focus being getting face time with folks who may not be able to report crimes that might have gone unreported because of the quarantine situation and that sort of thing,” he said.
Baker said police also offered to deliver food to people during this week’s ice and snow storm. The partnership has created several positive outcomes, including bringing people together, getting them involved in the community and connecting people in need to Antioch’s services, he said.
“She’s just a gem for our community,” Baker said about Tidwell.
Tidwell again noted the volunteers, and said building volunteerism is key to reducing food insecurity. She said many kids Antioch has served grow up continuing to volunteer with their own children and grandchildren.
“Wish we could do more. Wish there was more money available,” Tidwell said. “But you can really build community if you can affirm the worth of every human.”