Mayor Frank Scott Jr., U.S. Rep. French Hill, members of the nonprofit Fifty for the Future and representatives from Dollar General gathered for an announcement about the addition of produce sections to Dollar General stores in Little Rock at the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce Tuesday.
As an effort to combat food insecurity and health equity issues, 10 Dollar General locations in Little Rock — all south of Interstate 630 or east of Interstate 30 — have begun supplying fresh, or flash frozen, healthy options. The selection includes tomatoes, onions, apples, strawberries and potatoes. Officials recognized that while this effort doesn’t solve the problem, it is a step in the right direction.
“Food deserts are an issue here in the city of Little Rock,” Scott said. “It is not one particular area. When you focus on economic empowerment, you bring up — from an ethical standpoint — neighborhoods, which in turn brings up our entire city.”
City staff had been working for more than a year to recruit grocery stores to local food deserts. The Dollar General deal appears to be the best local officials could come up with. The Dollar General stores will not be full grocery stores.
In January, the Little Rock Board of Directors passed a resolution that placed a nine-month moratorium on approval of any new dollar stores in Little Rock. Sponsored by Director Kathy Webb, who heads up the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, the resolution was modeled on efforts in other cities and based on the idea that dollar stores, while not offering an extensive selection of meats or vegetables or other items, discourage more traditional grocery stores from coming into food deserts. But a week after the board passed the resolution, it voted to repeal it.
Director Lance Hines said at the time, “I find that we are raising an alarm on something that could be a solution of the problem, not an exacerbation of it,” he said.
Nine of the locations implemented the changes in the last three weeks, said Steve Brophy, the vice president of public policy and government affairs for Dollar General.
With the $140 million distribution center planned to be built in North Little Rock, additional food supply should not be a future concern, Brophy said.
“This shows how the city and the private business sector can work together to solve an important challenge,” Hill said. “We recognize this food desert issue at the federal level, and we’ve got dollars that come in through our cities and counties to try to help it, but the real issue is all about what we do locally — as a group of people solving problems locally.”
Schawnee Hightower, a member of the Fifty for the Future team, talked about his upbringing on Valentine Street, “which is in the heart of what we consider the 12th Street corridor,” he said. His family had a history of working in grocery stores; his mother the first African-American manager at the Safeway that was once at 17th and Main streets. He reflected on a time when the area had once been rich with grocery stores. That’s no longer the case.
“Based upon the economics of the business, decisions were made to remove those grocery stores,” Hightower said. “What is left is a vacuum in our community of people having options to go and get healthy food choices in their communities.”
The unhealthy option is typically the cheaper, easier option. Fruits and vegetables perish faster than frozen pizzas. A quick burger on the way home is easier than making a home-cooked meal after work. Some neighborhoods may not have healthy choices, and travel to other parts of town might not be possible.
Ultimately, food decisions can be life changing. Obesity has been recognized as a serious problem in the United States for decades.
Like several other national distinctions, Arkansas is in the lower half of the state’s rankings for obesity. With an obesity rate of 36.4%, Arkansas is part of a group of 15 states that have an adult obesity rate higher than 35%, according to 2020 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All of Arkansas’s neighboring states — except Missouri — are in this group as well.
Arkansas is the ninth worst in the country for adult obesity, according to the CDC.
Obesity often leads to other health complications. Obese individuals have an increased risk to develop type 2 diabetes, chronic heart conditions and have strokes.
The 10 locations will have celebrations Saturday, Aug. 6 starting at 8 a.m. where $10 gift cards for the first 50 adults will be awarded. The locations are the following:
*4748 Springer Blvd.
*3124 W. Roosevelt Road
*7501 Mablevale Cutoff
*15616 Alexander Road
*14600 Arch Street Pike
*3500 John Barrow Road
*12626 Lawson Road
*5023 Baseline Road
*4701 W. 65th St.
*9125 Stagecoach Road
At-large Directors Joan Adcock and Antwan Phillips and Director Doris Wright were present for the announcement.