July 12, 2024

By De’Stani Clark – Many working-class families in Arkansas are attempting to bridge the widening gap between income and expenses. So-called Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed families (ALICE), known increasingly by their acronym moniker, often must choose what necessities are crucial while hoping inflated food costs don’t weigh them down.

In 2022, Feeding America reported that 62 out of 75 counties in Arkansas are food insecure, meaning more than 467,000 of the state’s 3 million-plus residents don’t have enough to eat. Today, every county in the Land of Opportunity has at least one food desert, putting the state’s food insecurity rate at 15.5% , well above the national average of 10.4%. Experts say ALICE families, even those earning above the federal poverty line, still struggle to afford all their basic needs.

Despite those damning statistics, educators, healthcare providers, retail workers, and Arkansans that fit the ALICE profile still look forward to fostering healthy, happy lives for themselves and their families. Peggy Berry-Watson, a Maumelle local mother and community advocate, noted, “Food is an expression of love.” When asked what love looks like in a food insecurity environment for families in Arkansas, she replies, “A lot of planning and budgeting.”

Drawing from her extensive experience as an educator and as a mother raising three biological children along with thirteen godchildren and counting, Berry-Watson reflected on her journey of mastering the art of stretching the dollar. Despite facing initial obstacles such as childcare restraints and predating the current coupon regulations, Berry-Watson’s extreme couponing skills enabled her to slash a grocery bill from $1000 to just $150. While those specific deals may have faded, the lessons she learned— prioritizing seasonal purchases, buying in bulk, and fostering community collaboration—continue to guide her efforts today.

Nowadays, Berry-Watson devotes her time to volunteering at the Maumelle Food Pantry and advocating for legislative reforms across Arkansas. By strategically monitoring purchasing cycles for essential items and capitalizing on clearance sales, she maximizes savings in a manner that may seem daunting to many.

“American society keeps you at a pace where you can’t really catch up,” Berry-Watson explains. This has led her to recognize the importance of finding innovative solutions to alleviate the burden of daily expenses, particularly concerning food costs.

Reflecting on her experiences as a young mother, Berry-Watson shares stories of pooling resources with friends to address expenses collectively. From buying thirty freezer meals and organizing one cook day a week to purchasing half of a cow for family sustenance, these collaborative efforts alleviate financial strain and foster a sense of community. She said this ethos of communal support extends beyond individual households, which is evident in the rise of food co-ops, gifting networks, and astronomical expenses.

Deanna Gilbert, child nutrition expert at Hope Public School, talks about food insecurity in Arkansas.

Food Deserts, Not Desserts

As the child nutrition expert for Hope Public Schools (HPS), Deanna Gilbert reiterates this call to action for families as she celebrates their ongoing efforts to provide for their loved ones. After thirty-seven years at HPS, starting as a substitute in the local cafeteria, Gilbert now manages and constructs a yearly budget that ensures all southwest Arkansas district schools provide students with free meals year-round.

“Every year is a challenge. We rise and we meet it,” asserts Gilbert.

Across the Land of Opportunity, this sentiment resounds in other rural and urban communities up to the governor’s office in Little Rock.

The Arkansas Governor’s Food Desert Working Group, organized in the spring of 2022, conducted research and proposed actionable steps for the state to eliminate food deserts. The recommendations address policy changes and community initiatives, providing models and funding structures deemed suitable for Arkansas.

ALICE is highlighted in the group’s recommendations to the Governor and the Arkansas General Assembly. Their 68-page report involves designating a food access liaison within the Governor’s Office, establishing a legislative subcommittee on food access, and creating a cross-agency, cross-sector Food Access Council.

Kenya Eddings, vice chair of the Working Group and executive director of the Arkansas Minority Health Commission, emphasizes that community involvement is critical to addressing food insecurity in Arkansas.

“While policy will help move the needle, the power of change lies within the community – within the people. There was community buy-in,” says Eddings. “Most of the successful models we studied and visited all arose from communities pooling resources and ideas to begin working towards solutions.”

The Working Group’s proposal urges cities, towns, and municipalities to target food deserts locally to cultivate statewide efforts. The working group also recommends mobilizing community-driven, creative models tailored to the county to increase food access. Local leaders who have seen this impact firsthand are answering this call to action. Strong community partnerships are essential to ensure sustainable initiatives directly benefiting ALICE households.

The work completed with the Working Group revealed that barriers to food access include insufficient grocery stores in low-income communities, affordable fresh food options, increased food costs, limitations on qualifying for SNAP or other government subsidies, limited storage capacity in homes or facilities for unhoused people, limited funding and storage capacity at local food pantries, lack of transportation, and lack of knowledge in cooking or preparing fresh food.

Meanwhile, the Arkansas Food Bank (AFB) sustains a community-driven approach, supporting 300 partner-led pantries in 33 counties. Sherri Jones, the food bank’s chief program officer, views this as one of its most successful initiatives.

“It’s a very collaborative effort to make sure that everyone is taken care of. Those churches and soup kitchens know who in their community needs the services, so there are boots on the ground. And if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be able to distribute any food,” says Jones, adding that the food bank provides fresh food and sends it to the pantries for distribution.

Like many food access organizations across the state, the Little Rock-based food bank is no stranger to the food access barriers identified by the working group. The help of volunteers allows the AFB to implement additional initiatives like the Pop-Up Pantry or the Senior Delivery Service. For example, AFB is trying to open more pantries within Lee County.

Mobile delivery trucks “act as a band-aid until we can get that really good program up and running as we prioritize making sure that the community is served,” says Jones.

Jones notes that the Working Group’s recommendations extend to improving access to state food benefit programs, such as SNAP and WIC. “The application process can be cumbersome,” she states, adding that technical advancements are suggested to simplify application and recertification processes.

These improvements will likely bridge the gap between SNAP and WIC enrollment at 66% and 49%, respectively. She said the Arkansas Food Bank continues to fortify its mission by employing a liaison to assist families with the application process.

Hungry Kids Can’t Learn

Notwithstanding, not all ALICE families qualify for state food benefit programs. Limited access to healthy, nutritious food is linked to food insecurity, which affects more than 130,000 children in Arkansas. When considering these facts, Eddings, Gilbert and Jones reiterated the same sentiment: “Hungry kids can’t learn.”

Gilbert said she is driven by shaping students’ relationships with food and adjusting to their needs. She said some children have become disconnected from food, leading her team to encourage food education in and outside the classroom.

For example, students can observe the honey-making process at a local bee farm, egg hatching in the classroom, or attend a local health fair. Gilbert understands it may take an additional program, a smiling face, and the initiative to talk with students shying away from their food. “I love impacting lives – teaching kids. (We) might not be able to reach but two or three a year about eating healthy and exercising, but that’s more than there was,” she said.

“I think it’s important to offer as healthy meals as we can, but still keep along the lines of what is trending in eating and be able to have access to the foods that we know they’re going to eat,” states Gilbert. She said these strategies may entail allowing the smell of fresh cinnamon rolls to roam the hallways or providing ample fresh fruit to keep the students excited and engaged.

Meanwhile, the Hope Public Schools Summer Cafeteria Program pops up at various locations around the Hempstead County community and is available to any student 18 and under with a student ID, including those from neighboring school districts. Recently, Gov. Sarah Sanders announced that Arkansas will participate in the summer EBT program, giving children access to healthy food when school is out.

“It is known that for some children, meals eaten at school are oftentimes the only access to food for the day,” Eddings says.

The Working Group, signed into law by Sanders’ predecessor, former Gov. Asa Hutchinson, intentionally developed the report so that some community-level recommendations could be implemented immediately. At the same time, other proposals will take time to gain momentum; many communities are working to get there, and other organizations are already on the right track, Eddings said.

All ALICE individuals and experts agree that the urgency of addressing food insecurity in Arkansas is not just a responsibility of policymakers and organizations – it’s a call to action for every citizen. Eddings notes citizens can make a difference by fostering empathy, reducing stigma, and actively engaging with local groups. Whether working collaboratively or creating their initiatives, the collective effort of the community – the people – will propel Arkansas forward in the fight against hunger.

For Berry-Watson it is more personal. “Whether you go to Kroger, or Walmart, or to the tin box or the food pantry, if you’re feeding your children, then there should be no stigma,” she concludes.

(De’Stani Clark is the ALICE Project writer for Arkansas Delta Informer.)

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