Fort Smith ‘data walk’ an attempt to address high level of food insecurity

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 879 views 

The Urban Institute is in Fort Smith this week to share data, gather comments and generate ideas to fight food insecurity. Sebastian County is one of six counties selected from more than 3,000 U.S. counties as part of a Walton Family Foundation-funded project to study food insecurity.

Representatives from the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute met with teenagers and Sebastian County leaders Monday (June 4) and will meet with adults of the area Tuesday (June 5) for a “Data Walk” and sharing of ideas. The event is the result of an initial effort by the Urban Institute and Fort Smith-based Antioch for Youth and Family to look at the impact of state legislation to tie food stamps (federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and Medicaid access to work and other new requirements. There was a Feb. 21 meeting in Fort Smith in which food insecurity and its underlying issues were discussed.

“This is a way of focusing on what is going on in this area and comparing it to a national dashboard so that we can start a deeper conversation on what is going on in here and then to come up with ideas that might can help,” said Elaine Waxman with the Urban Institute.

According to Russell Gibson, director of information and technology services for the city of Fort Smith, the Urban Institute was pleased with the interest expressed by the community addressing the issue at the February meeting. Gibson was contacted by Ken Kupchick on behalf of Antioch to use the city’s Geographic Information System (GIS) to gather data on the issue.

The project researches connections between food insecurity and other socio-economic factors in a region. Initial work has been completed on gathering data on food insecurity and the economic health of all U.S. counties. The research gathers best practices to lessen food insecurity, and unique regional data to help guide policy.

Information shared at the data walk showed that while incomes are increasing in Fort Smith, the poverty rate in the city also is rising. The median income in Arkansas rose from $37,000 in 2012 to $42,000 in 2017, but the median income in Sebastian County is $40,000, the data walk showed. Sebastian County had a 20.5% poverty rate in 2012, compared to a state rate of 18.7%. In 2017, that rate is 22.5%, compared to 18.1% statewide.

Kupchick told Talk Business & Politics food insecurity is a complex issue that includes access to food, exercise, housing affordability, employment, credit scores, medical access and education access.

“The situation for any struggling individual or family is unique and probably complex, the same can be said for any community, too. However, there is commonality and many of us do not realize the extent to which multiple problems intersect. This pilot is about sharing reactions to data and building discussions about what the future could look like and what needs to change to get there,” Kupchick said.

In Sebastian County, 20,970 residents (or 16%) are food insecure. That number jumps to one in four when it comes to children.

“It’s not unusual for the number of children with food insecurity to be higher than the overall number, but one in four is high,” Waxman said.

On paper, Fort Smith should not have the food insecurity issue it has, Waxman said. There is low unemployment and Arkansas has a relatively low cost of living. However, issues in the city and county – the high cost of housing and transportation – contribute to the high level of food insecurity, she said.

“Working at minimum wage ($9.25 per hour), a worker would need to work 44 hours per week year round to afford a one-bedroom (home),” the data walk information showed. “A person would need to make $13.40 an hour or an income of $27,872 a year to afford a two-bedroom apartment.”

This leaves 30% of the residents being “housing cost burdened,” Waxman said. Transportation costs take up 31% of income of those living in the Sebastian County, which is more than peer cities.

Sebastian County is categorized in Group 4 of cities studied by the Urban Institute, sharing a category with Richmond, Va., Los Angeles, and Travis County, Texas (Austin). The group is characterized as moderately high food insecure urban counties with highest housing cost burden. Compared to its group, the county falls slightly below on average economic health, slightly above on average physical health and has the highest housing cost burden, Waxman said.

“You can’t tackle things without having these conversations with people,” she said. “What we are doing here is encouraging a collaborative effort.”

Kupchick said they hope the data walk and the conversations that follow will be a tool that can be used to develop real solutions.

“More than anything else, as long as I have lived here, which is 40 years, I’ve never seen true focus on the true demands of our area and how we can work together to lift things up,” he said. “We are trying to find ways to better ourselves and help all of us achieve and improve our wellbeing.”

Fort Smith Mayor George McGill said the area has fine groups of people, agencies and organizations that help, but hopefully, this information will generate smart conversations.

“I hope it will help us better our efforts and bring efficiency to help fight food insecurity,” he said. “Hopefully, this will help us better target areas to help.”

The Urban Institute will gather comments and information shared during the data walks from those participating and submit a report to by the end of summer, Waxman said.

The Feeding America network estimated that 1 in 8 Americans in 2017 was food insecure, or about 40 million Americans. Of that, an estimated 12 million were children. The network also notes that 75% of counties with the highest rates of food insecurity are in rural areas. A September 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that remaining 11.8% of U.S. households – around 15 million households – were food insecure in 2017. The USDA defines low and very low food security as households that “had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources.”