SETTING A PLAN: The food desert task for met Wednesday and got right to work putting goals in place. From left to right: Marq Golden, Rhonda Kimble, Christopher Harvey, Kimberly Lee, Kenya Eddings. Brian Chilson

The newly appointed Little Rock task force to address food deserts in the city met for the first time Wednesday morning. The group made quick work to identify their beginning steps, and members outlined a rough timeline to bring recommendations to the mayor and city Board of Directors before the end of the year.

The first steps established Wednesday included identifying neighborhoods within Little Rock that classify as a food desert and noting all available citywide resources, like community gardens and farmers markets. Using that data, the group will then produce of a survey for residents to describe their current behavior and changes they can to commit to.

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Mayor Frank Scott Jr. appointed Kathy Webb, executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and the city’s vice mayor, to lead the task force. Eight other members from different professional backgrounds are also part of the group, as well as two from Scott’s office to provide assistance when needed. The public is welcome to attend meetings and provide comments. The next meeting is scheduled for March 1 — time and location details to come.

Brian Chilson
KATHY WEBB leads the city’s food desert task force.

The city board had previously approved $1 million of federal pandemic relief funds to address food deserts, and that money needs to start being spent by 2024, Webb said Wednesday. Using that timeline, the group set a goal to present city officials with recommendations by the fall of this year.

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Kenya Eddings and Webb co-chaired a food desert working group that former Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed. Along with other members of the group, they presented statewide recommendations for ways to improve food access across Arkansas in December. Eddings is the executive director of the Arkansas Minority Health Commission.

Brian Chilson
KENYA EDDINGS is executive director of the Arkansas Minority Health Commission and a member of the city task force.

The working group’s report described a food desert as an area where residents “must travel more than 1 mile in an urban setting or more than 10 miles in a rural setting to obtain a selection of fresh, nutritious food.”

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The city task force will use the base of knowledge established in the report to determine how to approach each neighborhood’s situation. The report included a look at several working models to increase food access, and the group noted Wednesday that each neighborhood will have unique needs.

There is a myriad of things to consider when addressing food deserts, and solutions are not always “one size fits all,” Eddings said. The group talked about education aspects that relate to choosing healthy food, budget restrictions that hinder some people from the fresh, short-lived produce and the cost of transportation required to travel to the better quality grocery stores in the city.

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Overall, “healthy food [and] access to healthy food is key to stabilizing communities,” said Charity Hallman, a leader at Hope Credit Union.

Brian Chilson
CHARITY HALLMAN (foreground) is a task force member and also the senior vice president for community and economic development at Hope Credit Union.

Kimberly Lee, a resident of Southwest Little Rock and member of the task force, recommended that the models should be visualized when the group does community outreach to help folks understand options that are outside of the box of a typical brick and mortar grocery store.

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Considering generational differences is something that resident Rhonda Kimble also brought to the group’s attention. People who frequent the drive-thru and those who cook at home likely won’t have the same thing in mind for a solution in their community.

Questions surrounding a commitment to change habits was something that the group determined should play a key role in the survey that would follow the data collection. Members noted other towns that implemented a permanent grocery store but did not have success because residents continued their former habits of traveling elsewhere.

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Though not entirely planned out at this time, the task force members determined that the solutions for the community should include ample input from the community itself. The group plans to meet with the public in some capacity, whether it be at existing neighborhood association meetings, joint gatherings with several neighborhoods in one area or special called groups.

Brian Chilson
SOUTHWEST LITTLE ROCK RESIDENT Kimberly Lee provides a voice of the area to the task force.

The members of the task force are:

*Kathy Webb, Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance

*Barrett Allen, University District Partnership

*Kenya Eddings, Arkansas Minority Health Commission

*Marq Golden, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

*Charity Hallman, Hope Credit Union

*Rhonda Kimble, resident

*Kimberly Lee, resident

*Gary Proffitt, Edwards Food Giant

*Caleb Walker, Southern Bancorp

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