To help meet people’s nutritional needs, 150 organizations operate 195 program sites – providing on-site meals, or delivered meals, or food pantries – in Northwest Arkansas. Yet, access for the estimated 58,000 food insecure residents of Benton and Washington counties remains a problem.
CGR was engaged by the Walmart Foundation to help answer the question of why. We gathered, analyzed and mapped relevant data, interviewed stakeholders and partnered with a collaborative in the region to conduct 24 focus groups with food providers and program recipients.
Food insecurity is a bit distinct from hunger, in that it can refer not only to people lacking adequate food, but also people lacking access at certain times, or whose access to nutritiously adequate food is uncertain. While it affects primarily low-income people, it can hit a broader range of households with job or income insecurity. College students are one group increasingly affected, because of ballooning college costs, inadequate financial aid, and growing enrollment of low-income and first-generation students.
Our discussions with providers and participants pointed to transportation as a key issue in accessing food programs, especially for the parts of both counties that are more rural. They also suggested the types of food provided (not enough healthy or ethnically appropriate food) and treatment of clients (stigma associated with needing help, language barriers) are also issues to address.
In addition, the hours of operation for most programs constitute a barrier. While dozens of programs operate during business hours Monday-Friday, very few are open in evenings, early mornings, or on weekends. One focus group participant commented, “Hours don’t work for people that work day shift. Some people work two jobs. People have to ask off to visit a food pantry.”
Funders and program providers are using our study and rich input from community members to develop new ways of working together to meet needs. Lengthening service hours, adding locations, providing new transportation methods and more closely coordinating efforts are all possible moves forward – as is increasing advocacy efforts around the closely related challenges of affordable housing and living wage employment.
 For more information on how the USDA defines food insecurity see: https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us