World War II veteran fought hunger on the home front

Poppy Pennington honored through naming of northeast Arkansas food pantry

By K.D. Reep
Special Contributor

The great thing about American heroes is they come in all shapes and sizes, rise to a challenge whether they feel prepared or not, and are often unsung.

In the case of Wardell “Poppy” Pennington, what he contributed to his church, community, state and country is no longer unrecognized. The food pantry at Umsted Memorial United Methodist Church now bears his name for his dedication to fighting hunger in Jackson County. Even after his death in 2016 at age 94, Pennington’s dedication to feeding hungry people helps meet the needs of Newport-area children, some of the 200,000 reasons the United Methodist Church is fighting childhood hunger in Arkansas.

“My dad was a legendary tough guy with a heart of gold,” said John Pennington, Poppy’s son. “All the kids in town wanted to arm wrestle him, which he just loved. He did things his own way, and as a restaurant owner for 66 years, he loved to feed people. He fed generations of families in Newport, and if anyone couldn’t pay, he’d seat them and give them a meal at no charge.”

A retired restaurant owner in Newport, Poppy started his successful business after returning home from serving as a tail gunner in World War II. After 65 missions overseas, Poppy was undaunted by long hours, contrary customers and fluctuations in supplies and prices as a restaurant proprietor.

“He volunteered at the Umsted UMC food pantry every time they opened the doors. Because he spent so much time there, he knew where everything was even after he lost his eyesight. Poppy volunteered there until his death last year,” said Kathy Webb, executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and a member of First United Methodist Church Little Rock, in a post on social media. “Poppy is an American hero.”

Volunteers at the Wardell “Poppy” Pennington Memorial Food Pantry in March received a check from the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance providing funds for a new cooler.

According to the Rev. Thompson Murray, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church Newport, the food pantry began in August 2013 at the encouragement of the Northeast Arkansas Food Bank in Jonesboro, which cooperates with the Feeding America program. In July of that year, a new Wal-Mart Supercenter opened in Newport, and the food pantry that would be Poppy’s namesake endeavor was organized to help people in need utilize food donated from the old Wal-Mart location.

What was then called the Newport Regional Food Pantry was originally organized by members of three United Methodist congregations: First UMC Newport, Umsted Memorial UMC and Emory Chapel UMC. The food pantry operates out of the education building of Umsted Memorial UMC, and it has enjoyed great support from many other individuals, churches and organizations. In November 2015, the food pantry was renamed in honor of a beloved and faithful volunteer, Wardell “Poppy” Pennington.

Volunteers from the food pantry pick up food from the Wal-Mart Supercenter each Thursday morning and bring it back to the food pantry where it is weighed and sorted, then refrigerated or frozen until it is given out the following Monday morning. On average, the food pantry serves about 200 households each week, but there are weeks when it serves as many as 250 families. Each household gets a box of food that will generally include some kind of meat or protein, fresh and/or canned vegetables, dairy products, bread and various other assorted items. The food pantry is open each Monday morning from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.

Today, the Wardell “Poppy” Pennington Memorial Food Pantry showcases Pennington’s legacy of service to others before self, which lives on as one of the countless reasons to continue feeding the hungry in northeast Arkansas.