Pine Bluff major wants new food options to become a healthier city

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Making sure people have access to healthy and affordable foods is a problem across Arkansas, and Pine Bluff is working to solve the issue one healthy step at a time.

PINE BLUFF, Ark. — Making sure people have access to healthy and affordable foods is a problem across Arkansas, and it’s an issue that’s difficult to address.

A “food desert” is an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. These food deserts can have long-term impacts that span across generations.

The City of Pine Bluff is experiencing this issue, but the community is working to solve it one healthy step at a time, which includes community gardening.

Pine Bluff Major Shirley Washington said she believes progress is being made.

“I think the health and wellness is not where it needs to be, but we’re on an uptick,” Washington said.

The latest information from the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement shows this is a widespread problem in the Natural State.

In 26% of areas surveyed, at least 50% of the population has trouble accessing healthy food sources.

Washington said her office is in talks with major food retailers to help drive down these numbers.

“Maybe a Kroger, maybe an Edwards Food Giant,” Washington said. “Maybe a Harps because they’re moving into Arkansas.”

The mayor also hopes to bring a new grocery store to Pine Bluff within the next two years, but there’s been resistance.

“Some retailers have told us they’re not expanding at this time,” Washington said. “Maybe not in this area.”

According to Washington, Pine Bluff’s declining population makes recruiting and retaining food retailers difficult.

“One of our main supermarkets on East Harding Street left town,” Washington said. “I would love to see a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. That would be something different.”

But that’s easier said than done, and it’s hard to accomplish across the state.

Looking at data from 2019, Arkansas only had, on average, 1.7 grocery stores for every 10,000 people, which is below the national average of 2.1 stores.

The below-average correlation means fewer places to get healthy foods, leading to serious health problems.

“We have a lot of juvenile diabetes in our community,” Washington said. “We have a lot of heart conditions in our community.”

But with healthy food programs and initiatives popping up across the state, community leaders hope it will create a generational shift in healthy eating habits for Arkansans.