The problem of so-called “food deserts” is worsening in Arkansas as grocery stores continue to close in both urban and rural communities. On Friday, a group tasked by Gov. Asa Hutchinson with examining the problem released its final report of recommendations.
A food desert is defined as an area where residents have few to no convenient options to secure affordable, healthy foods—in particular fresh fruits and vegetables.
Little Rock City Director Kathy Webb is CEO of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and served as co-chair of the 18-member Governor’s Food Desert Working Group.
“Not only do food deserts contribute to unhealthier Arkansans, our focus group showed the importance of grocery stores or similar models to communities. And we know that the scope of the problem is big; over 62 of our 75 counties have identified food deserts,” Webb said.
Webb and fellow group members looked at examples from other states where governments and private sector businesses partnered to tackle the issue. Christie Jordan, CEO of the Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas, says most focused on transportation and existing food benefit programs like SNAP, or food stamps.
“There’s a subscription and self-service market that is open to the public a few days a week, but if you’re a subscriber you can access it 24 hours a day,” Jordan said. “A locally-owned grocery store adapted to their low-income community’s needs, yet this store thrives because they offer a customer shuttle and delivery service, as well as online grocery ordering that allows customers to use their SNAP benefits.”
Jordan says one example the group studied involved a city-run grocery store, which is treated more like a public utility than a private business. She says pilot programs are currently being studied in Forrest City and Altheimer, and could get underway as soon as next year.
Kenya Eddings, director of the Arkansas Minority Health Commission and co-chair of the group, says health outcomes for communities of color are disproportionately impacted by a reduced access to affordable, healthy food.
“The national average of food insecurity is 10.7%… in 2020, Black non-Hispanic households had a food insecurity rate of 21.7%, more than double the national average. Among Hispanic households, the prevalence of food insecurity was 17.2%,” Eddings said.
The group recommends expanding access to public assistance programs like SNAP and WIC, and allowing for more delivery and online ordering options. Also recommended are new tax incentives for grocers opening in underserved communities, as well as for dedicated positions and groups looking at hunger in the Governor’s Office and the state legislature.
Dr. Joe Thompson, president and CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, says the state should leverage and adapt its existing hunger relief programs to better serve those living in food deserts.
“Whether that’s our breakfast and lunch programs at schools, whether it’s our [SNAP] program through the Department of Human Services whether it’s the [WIC] program in the Department of Health, whether it’s economic development to support new businesses in the Department of Commerce, all of these activities need to be brought together to push forward and solve the issues of a food desert in our state,” Thompson said.
According to the group’s report, about 15% of Arkansans are currently experiencing food insecurity. That compares to a national average of roughly 10%. The nonprofit Feeding America estimates Arkansans need just over $200 million to completely eliminate the problem of food insecurity.