Jan 4, 2023 - News

Efforts ramp up to relieve Arkansas food deserts

Illustration of a shopping cart with an "X".

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

About 400,000 Arkansans, including 138,400 children, don't know where their next meal will come from, according to a recently released report by a governor-appointed group established to gather information on food insecurity in the state.

Driving the news: Some of the group's recommendations for the governor and General Assembly include:

  • Designating a food access liaison within the governor's office and establishing a legislative subcommittee on food access;
  • Offering tax incentives for grocers opening stores in low-income areas with limited access to healthy food;
  • Providing pilot grant funds for food access startups;
  • Advance technology solutions to ensure the application and recertification processes for nutrition benefits are simple to navigate;
  • Increase farmers market vouchers and incentive programs for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients.

Why it matters: About 15% of the state's population was food insecure in 2021, compared to 10% of the nation as a whole, according to the report.

Be smart: A "food desert" refers to a community where residents must travel more than 1 mile in an urban setting or more than 10 miles in a rural community to obtain a selection of fresh, nutritious food.

  • Food insecurity refers to limited or uncertain access to adequate food because of income instability, financial hardships, access barriers such as lack of transportation or nearby food establishments, and mental and physical health issues.
  • Food insecurity contributes to chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

By the numbers: Benton County had the lowest food insecurity rate in the state in 2020 with 10%. Washington County's rate was 13.5%.

What they found: The group examined solutions other regions have tried and found some to be "promising" for Arkansas, such as grocery distribution hubs that allow people to order from an agreed-upon provider and have those orders delivered to a single location.

  • Expanding access to broadband was identified as a method to make food more accessible, as consumers can place pickup and delivery orders online, easing transportation and time barriers.

Between the lines: While the affordability increases food insecurity, proximity to brick-and-mortar retailers does, too. One 86-year-old Little Rock resident interviewed as part of a focus group went from being easily able to get food at a grocery store within walking distance to depending upon transportation from others when her nearest grocer closed.

What they're saying: Rachel Spencer, senior manager of community resilience at Walmart, took part in the governor's group and tells Axios the need stands out to her for more technology solutions that make it easier for people in rural areas to have groceries delivered or available for pickup.

  • Existing assets such as businesses or nonprofits in food deserts should collaborate to combat food insecurity, she added.
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