An Arkansas working group on food deserts formed earlier this year held a news conference on Friday to release its report and recommendations.
The Arkansas Governor’s Food Desert Working Group was led by co-chairs Kathy Webb, chief executive officer of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, and Kenya Eddings, executive director of the Arkansas Minority Health Commission.
“While efforts to combat food deserts started long before this year, there’s been little success as we continue to see communities across the state lose access to grocery stores,” Webb told attendees Friday at Little Rock’s Union Station.
The group’s work came about when Webb and state Rep. Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, asked Gov. Asa Hutchinson to create a group to tackle the issue, and he agreed, Webb recalled.
Eighteen individuals served on the working group.
They worked with the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute to author the report, which relied on existing data sources, outreach to successful models in other rural states and focus groups conducted in person and online.
Though definitions for the term “food desert” vary, for the purposes of their report, working group members arrived at the following definition: “A community is a food desert or low-food access location if residents must travel more than one mile in an urban setting or more than 10 miles in a rural setting to obtain a selection of fresh, nutritious food.”
They focused on how to establish sustainable grocery options in low-access areas and address hurdles that users of food benefit programs face.
Citing economic data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the report said 62 of Arkansas’ 75 counties have a low-income, low-access census tract or identified food desert.
The report also cited the prevalence of chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease in Arkansas compared to other states.
Residents without easy access to a vehicle or public transportation can face challenges getting to the grocery store. Additionally, profit margins for a traditional grocery store are often very low, “making them vulnerable to market changes,” the report said.
Recommendations for the governor and Arkansas General Assembly included naming a food access liaison within the governor’s office and creating a legislative subcommittee on food access.
Members endorsed fiscal support for food access through methods such as tax incentives for grocers who open stores in low-income, low-access areas or a revolving loan program.
Working group members also recommended that state lawmakers improve access to state food benefit programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
Those steps might include long-term implementation of covid-19-era flexibility when it comes to accessing SNAP and WIC, the report said.
“Many Arkansans are unable to take part in SNAP or WIC due to the burdensome application and recertification processes,” the report said.
Potential SNAP recipients in Arkansas face an asset limit, which members recommended raising or removing. The asset limit “serves as a cliff and a disincentive for individuals to accumulate savings and become upwardly mobile,” the report said.
Municipal officials were encouraged to “develop community-driven, creative models to increase food access,” according to the report, which presented several working models from other states.
Mayor Zola Hudson of Altheimer told attendees Friday that the city’s grocery store closed in 2019, creating an extra burden on low-income families, seniors and those without transportation. Residents of Altheimer number fewer than 700.
As a result of the closure, many people had to use part of their grocery money to pay others to take them to Pine Bluff or Stuttgart to buy groceries, she said.
Hudson said that because of the working group, officials near Altheimer are examining the GOODS (Grocery Online Ordering Distribution Service) model out of Drew, Miss., in which groceries ordered online are then delivered to a central location.
The project “would mean the world to our community, and it truly means the world to us,” Hudson said. “And I am so excited about being a part of the solution.”