HJAR Jan/Feb 2023

40 JAN / FEB 2023 I  HEALTHCARE JOURNAL OF ARKANSAS POLICY COLUMN POLICY ARKANSAS has a food desert problem. In many of our neighborhoods, residents do not have convenient access to healthy, af- fordable food options including fresh meat, bread, and fruits and vegetables. These areas of limited food access, often called food des- erts, lack supermarkets and grocery stores but may have high numbers of convenience stores and corner stores that do not stock many healthy foods. Especially for people with low incomes and seniors whomay have limited transportation options, living in a food desert increases the risk of food in- security and diet-related health problems, such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. To find out how extensive the problem of food deserts is in our state, the Arkan- sas Center for Health Improvement ana- lyzed U.S. Department of Agriculture data for 2019, the most recent year available. For our analysis, we classified residents as hav- ing low access to healthy food sources if they lived farther than 1 mile from the near- est large grocery store — defined as a store with a wide selection of food products and at least $2 million in annual sales — in an urban area or farther than 10miles from the nearest large grocery store in a rural area. We found that in 26% of census tracts in the state, more than 50% of residents had low access to healthy food sources. 1 That statistic is troubling enough, but bear in mind that it is based on 2019 data. Rising food and gas prices and recent grocery store closures have undoubtedly exacerbated the challenges manyArkansans face in obtain- ing healthy, affordable foods. Other notable statistics: • As of 2019, at least 358 of the 686 cen- sus tracts inArkansas were low-access, as defined by the USDA. The agency defines a census tract as low-access if at least 500 residents or 33% of the population live farther than 1 mile from the nearest large grocery store in an urban area or farther than 10 miles from the nearest large grocery store in a rural area. 1 • As of 2019, at least 171 of the 686 cen- sus tracts in Arkansas were both low- access and low-income, as defined by the USDA. The agency defines a census tract as low-income if at least 20% of residents are at or below 200% of the federal poverty level (in 2019, 200% of the federal poverty level was $24,980 for an individual or $51,500 for a family of four) or the median family income of the census tract is less than 80% of the median family income for the state or the local metropolitan area, if ap- plicable (the median family income in Arkansas in 2019 was $48,952, so 80% of that was $39,162). 1 • There were only 1.7 grocery or produce vendors per 10,000 people inArkansas in 2019, below the national average of 2.1 per 10,000. 2 • Fifteen percent of Arkansas households experienced food insecurity at least some time during 2021. This was the second-highest rate in the nation and well above the national rate of 10.2%. 3 Research has shown that the presence of neighborhood supermarkets is associated with reduced obesity risk, while easy access to convenience stores and fast-food restau- rants is associated with greater obesity risk. 4 Studies have also found that supermarket openings are associated with moderate re- ductions in the weight of children in low- income households living nearby, 5 while higher numbers of fast-food restaurants near schools are associated with higher rates of obesity in children. 6 Seniors are also negatively impacted by food deserts; a study found that seniors living in rural communi- ties eat fewer fruits and vegetables the far- ther they live from a supermarket or other retail store that sells healthy food. 7 Recognizing that Arkansas has a food ac- cess crisis, Gov. Asa Hutchinson convened a diverse group of Arkansans last spring to study the issue and make recommendations for addressing it. I was honored to serve as a member of the Governor’s Food Desert Working Group, which was led by Chair Kathy Webb, CEO of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and a Little Rock city direc- tor, and Vice Chair Kenya Eddings, executive director of the Arkansas Minority Health Commission. We were still finalizing our report at my column deadline, but the re- port should be publicly available by the time you read this. Our recommendations are described briefly below; seek out the report for more detail. For the governor and the legislature: • Increase Arkansas government ac- countability for improving food access. This could include designating a food liaison within the governor’s office; Arkansas’ Food Desert Problem: What if Your Only Source of Groceries Were a Gas Station or Convenience Store?