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Arkansas lawmakers discuss food deserts, raw milk sales

Customers shop for produce at the Flint Farmers' Market.
G.L. Kohuth
Courtesy of Michigan State University
Customers shop for produce at the Flint Farmers' Market.

The state Agriculture, Forestry, and Economic Development committees met Wednesday to hear and adopt interim study proposals, or ISPs, which could later be voted into law as bills.

First up was State Rep. Denise Ennett, Democrat of District 80, who spoke about fire protection districts in the state alongside county attorneys and the Little Rock Fire Chief.

Their study was simple, proposing that the state review the fire protection districts via the Arkansas Department of Agriculture and redraw those districts where necessary.

Fire protection districts govern the construction and response of fire stations, staffing, and equipment for a particular area.

State Rep. Rick Beck, Republican of District 43, shared an ISP "To Amend the Law Regarding the Allocation of Production and Cost Following an Integration Order; And to Define 'Proceeds.'"

Beck said the bill was not new, but his goal was to build a broader discussion on how to best incorporate a court's decision concerning net costs for integrated mineral rights owners into law for all mineral rights owners.

Additionally, Beck proposed finding amendments to existing laws so that integrated and existing mineral rights owners are covered under the same language.

Representative Tippi McCullough, Democrat of District 74 of Little Rock, and Little Rock vice-mayor Kathy Webb, brought forth HB1645, known as the Healthy Food Retail Act.

The bill was filed in the last regular legislative session, and claims to provide a reliable source of financing for healthy food in underserved communities and increase access to affordable healthy food.

"The lack of access to affordable healthy food contributes to many diet-related diseases, including several in which Arkansas ranks very high compared to other states," said Rep. McCullough. "Arkansas ranks among the ten worst states in the percentage of residents struggling with diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and blood pressure."

The Healthy Food Retailer Program would be a public and private partnership to provide funding for healthy food retailers that increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables and other affordable healthy food in underserved communities to the extent that funds are available, a point that McCullough stressed.

"It does not allocate specific dollars, which could be done by the General Assembly through a revolving loan program, through application for federal grants including several programs available through the US Department of Agriculture, rainy day funds or other sources."

The program would be managed by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

The full text is available here.

Finally, State Rep. Cameron Cooper, Republican of District 73, shared a one-page ISP that would strike a regulation that limits the sale of raw cow, goat, or sheep milk directly to a farm.

Rep. Cooper's proposal would open the sale of raw, unpasteurized milk to be sold at farmer's markets or delivered to the consumer.

"A lot of times we see state government and different bureaucracies within state government being what I would call a 'regulatory busy-body,'" said Rep. Cooper. "Like I said, this bill is about liberty and personal responsibility. We can decide what we want to consume."

Rep. Cooper referenced other states that have implemented similar proposals and said there would be required disclosures that place the responsibility for any potential illness on the consumer of the raw milk.

All proposed ISPs were adopted for consideration without exception.

Nathan Treece is a reporter and local host of NPR's Morning Edition for Little Rock Public Radio.