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State and local leaders implement strategies to combat food insecurity

Last year, the Arkansas state government launched a taskforce to investigate the growing number of food deserts across the state. As a result of this taskforce, state and local leaders met in Little Rock in September to discuss the issue. Ozarks at Large’s Josh Marvine reports what solutions are being implemented, and what work is still left to do, as all 75 Arkansas counties grapple with at least one food desert.

Last month, state, local, and private sector leaders met in Little Rock to discuss a growing issue across the state of Arkansas: food deserts.

We spoke to Casey Cowan, the Director of Client Services at the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, who describes food deserts as “basically, where someone has to travel more than 1 mile in an urban area, or more than 10 miles in a rural area to get to fresh food.” And what does this look like in Arkansas? Kathy Webb, the CEO of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, explains: “low income, low access areas of the state where we no longer have grocery stores where people are able to get a variety of fresh produce. We’ve got food deserts in all 75 counties and since the late 1990s, we’ve seen a decrease in the number of grocery stores that are open across the state.”

Food deserts are a problem that has been getting worse in Arkansas for decades. The Little Rock Summit, on the other hand, started coming together 18 months ago, when Webb spearheaded a state task force under former Governor Asa Hutchinson to begin addressing the issue. Webb said the task force was, “Obviously something we talked about for a long time, but I think that there was growing interest in the issue, and when then-Governor Hutchinson appointed the task force and we started to reach out to people across the state, we saw that because the problem seemed to be getting worse, the interest in solutions also was increasing.”

And just what are some of those solutions? First, the task force looked at what other states were doing for inspiration. “I’ve looked at a lot of pieces of legislation that other states have passed to address this issue. And sometimes that’s a revolving loan program for grocery stores, it’s establishing pilot programs. I think as we have seen more grocery stores close over the last 18 months as we’ve really delved into this issue, we’ve seen similar situations in a variety of states across the country,” Webb said.

“Even in Kansas, when their small grocery store closed, the community got together and decided to keep it open. You know, people are really having to get creative to keep some of these resources available,” Cowen adds.

Arkansans are working on solutions, too. Like Sabrina Thiede, Director of Programs at the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, who talked to us about the kind of conversations happening with grocery stores here: “(We’re) saying hey…I know they’ve done it in Little Rock, with the Kroger, and saying ‘hey, let’s think about building something here’ and seeing what we can do to help our neighbors.”

But unfortunately, many communities in Arkansas simply do not have the funding to sustain a grocery store right now.

Thiede says, “Times are hard right now, and…I'm not sure that they’d be able to handle, like, the cost of inflation on groceries and supplying their shelves. And so, if that were to go out, then yeah, food insecurity would go through the roof in that small community." She adds, “for Arkansas right now, we're in a position to where we would rely on the charitable food network if something like that were to happen. We do love the idea of our government working together to create those things, I mean that obviously would be really nice, I just don’t think we’re there."

Webb, on the prospect of using public funds for new brick-and mortar stores, adds “We’re not gonna get a grocery store, but there are other things that we could get that would allow our residents to have fresh groceries brought into our community.”

Zola Hudson, the mayor of Altheimer, Arkansas, lives this reality in her own community. On Altheimer and surrounding townships, Mayor Hudson said “Neither one of us has a local Grocery store, and any time that you're ten miles or more from a major chain, then you’re considered a food desert. And that’s what Altheimer (and neighboring communities) is.”

We spoke with Mayor Hudson about the solutions she sees on the ground right now, and she explained, “So that we could have a mobile distribution system for ordering the food and delivering the food to the three communities, we will have a van driver and one person to work the admin part of it to place the orders for the citizens, and they would pay for their orders online. Either they could have the admin person place the order for them, or if they’re computer-savvy they could place their own orders. We’re still in the planning phase of this, and to try to get three communities connected to participate in this as well.”

The northwest Arkansas food bank also views food delivery services as a potential breakthrough, in order to get food into peoples kitchens. “So, those that don't have the transportation to get there (a grocery store), we are working with folks to get deliveries out to them weekly so that they can have groceries at home,” Thiede said.

While new developments may be promising, it's clear there is still a lot of work to be done before food deserts are a thing of the past. “I think one of the most important things is that it’s not one size fits all, and they could range from a nonprofit coming in to organize a grocery store, to an online ordering hub with delivery into a community, or a mobile grocery store. Those were just a few of the solutions that people talked about,” Webb noted.

Thiede said her goal for the future of hunger in Arkansas is, “I hope that we are able to provide a place for everyone who is seeking assistance to go and be able to receive food. That is my hope, and my hope is that we do that in a variety of ways.”

As it stands, those working on solutions say they know what needs to be done. Whether it's more mobile pantries, delivery services, or increased funding for grocery stores, only one question remains: “whether or not we have the political will to make the decisions that will lessen hunger, or that will increase hunger,” Webb said.

Mayor Hudson's message to lawmakers is, ”I would just hope that the representatives and the senators can come together and see how great the need is between the 75 counties, and that they would put something in place for us to be able to have access, to help us to get these programs up and running for the community. Citizens just do not have the funding for (things like) being able to purchase cars, and just and just have everything that they need. And they cannot just run into town two or three times a week, or pay someone to do this for them. And I think that as time continues to go on, that hunger in the state will just grow more rapidly.”

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Josh Marvine is a multimedia producer for KUAF.
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