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Group looks for solutions to lack of healthy food options in Arkansas

A Kroger store on Col. Glenn Road in Little Rock closed last month leaving residents in the area with fewer options for buying fresh food.
Michael Hibblen
A Kroger store on Col. Glenn Road in Little Rock closed last month leaving residents in the area with fewer options to buy fresh food.

A group created by Gov. Asa Hutchinson is working to come up with recommendations on how to address the problem of “food deserts” in Arkansas. That’s the term for areas without grocery stores or fresh produce.

An analysis of federal data by the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI) finds a large number of residents are being impacted by not having grocery stores near their homes. That leaves people dependent on convenience stores and fast food restaurants, which exacerbates obesity and other health ailments.

Based on 2019 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ACHI says more than one in four census areas in the state had at least 50% of the local population did not have access to affordable healthy food sources. Dr. Joe Thompson, the center’s president and CEO, says inflation in the following years has worsened the situation.

“Food is costing more – we’re seeing that at the grocery stores, those of us that do have access to healthy food options,” Thompson said. “For those individuals that are more isolated, the cost of gas is going up. So, if you’re more than 10 miles from a supermarket, it costs you a lot more now to get there and back, so I do think this is becoming a worsening problem.”

Thompson is a member of the Governor’s Food Desert Working Group, which is expected to have a report with recommendations completed by the end of the year. Members are scheduled to meet again on Monday and Tuesday.

ACHI classifies people as having low access to healthy food sources if they live farther than one mile from a large grocery store in an urban area or more than 10 miles from one in a rural area.

The Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance says over the last 25 years, the state has seen a steady decline in the number of grocery stores, especially in low-income areas.

“We still are being burdened. We’re the sixth heaviest state in the nation with almost 40% of our adults being classified as obese, and that’s really a challenge if they can’t get to healthy foods,” Thompson said. “It just starts to compound those problems downstream.”

On Wednesday, the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition & Healthreleased it’s national strategy with actions that will be taken on the federal level. Thompson said the meeting noted that some programs like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, haven’t changed in decades.

“As the agriculture bill comes up in Congress for renewal next year, we want to make sure that we have concrete recommendations for our congressional delegation to take forward,” Thompson said.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.