Driving up U.S. Highway 64 to the northeastern corner of Arkansas, one can pass some stunning sights — a crop duster swooping low while spraying, a low summer sun over fields of cotton. You’ll also pass by a grocery store on the side of the highway in Augusta with a huge, empty parking lot.
Augusta’s only grocery store, a Country Mart, closed this past summer, leaving the city’s residents without a store to buy fresh food. Leigh Anne Bullington, a University of Arkansas extension agent for Woodruff County, said the store’s closure has created a food desert in the middle of the county’s biggest town.
“Augusta, the largest city in the county, has no grocery store, period,” she said. “There’s a dollar store here where you can buy some things, but even at that, there is no fresh produce. You’re not going to buy anything like that.”
A Dollar General stands next to the vacant Country Mart building, providing a basic assortment of mostly packaged foods. The closest grocery stores can be found in Bald Knob to the west of Augusta and McCrory to the east, an almost 15-minute drive either way.
While only 10 miles separates Augusta and McCrory, many residents do not have access to transportation for a quick grocery store run. Low-income residents virtually are forced to eat the processed foods that can be found in the dollar store or gas stations that are within easy driving or walking distance.
“People are in desperate need of food, and they don’t have food. There is a tremendous amount of population in this area that doesn’t have transportation,” Bullington said. “If you don’t have transportation to drive 10 or 12 miles, you can’t get there to buy food.”
The closure has hit the city and its residents hard, with Mayor Jeff Collins pointing out the loss of tax revenue and the challenges it poses for getting food. Currently, city leadership is working to locate a new buyer for the grocery store building. “We have a committee, and we have packages offered to anybody who wants to come in,” he said.
Augusta isn’t unique in its circumstances, though. Other small Northeast Arkansas communities, such as Earle in Crittenden County, have no grocery stores and must rely on convenience stores and corner markets.
These communities have become the food deserts of Northeast Arkansas.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a region that is both low-income with a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater or a median family income at or below 80 percent of the statewide median level, and with at least 500 people or 33 percent of the population living more than one mile from a supermarket or 10 miles in a rural area.
A 2012 USDA Economic Research Service study characterized food deserts as areas with “large proportions of households with low incomes, inadequate access to transportation and a limited number of food retailers providing fresh produce and healthy groceries for affordable prices.” According to this study, approximately 23.5 million individuals in the United States live in food deserts that are one mile or further away from a grocery store or supermarket. Low income individuals make up almost half of that total.
Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance executive director Kathy Webb sees the rise of food deserts as a serious issue facing Northeast Arkansas as well as regions throughout the state. Webb, who grew up in Egypt in Craighead County, knows all too well the importance of access to food in Northeast Arkansas. It’s the mission of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance to increase that access and shape public policy that impacts hunger.
“It’s a real big problem in Arkansas in general,” Webb said. “It’s a big issue because not having access to a variety of foods has a negative impact on a person’s health. It has an impact on the community.”
Webb singles out transportation as a key part of the food desert equation, noting that even with transportation, driving miles to get groceries can be a burden. Gas prices, which can fluctuate dramatically depending on world circumstances, can be a significant hardship for low-income individuals.
“Transportation is a big issue in Northeast Arkansas. It’s a barrier that people run into in not being able to get to a grocery store. Gas is expensive for people who don’t have a lot of income. If you’re working one job or two jobs and then you have to drive 20 miles to the grocery store, those are barriers for low income people,” she said.
Health outcomes are not the only factor at play with food deserts. Food access plays an important role in economic development and growth as well.
Grocery stores are critical for the overall health and growth of local communities, according Jon David King, vice president of operations for the Hays grocery store chain, which operates 12 stores in Arkansas and two in Missouri. These stores fuel both residents and the community as a whole, providing a range of foods and a foundation for further business growth in the area.
“They have convenience stores or a Dollar General, but they don’t carry the wide variety of items that we have – the healthy foods and the depth of availability of items that we have. It greatly impacts food security, food safety and health,” he said.
Without a grocery store, small towns run the risk of stagnating.
“They cease to grow, to bring in people to live in town and work. They have to commute, in some cases 15 to 25 minutes to the nearest supermarket,” King said. “If they can’t attract a supermarket, it’s going to be tough for them to grow and sustain themselves.”
Food deserts have been especially hard hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Supply chains have been disrupted, limiting the amount of food available to take to stores. Combine the supply chain disruptions with the distance that individuals have to drive to buy groceries, and you have a significant dilemma in Northeast Arkansas.
Augusta’s residents are still reckoning with the impact of the store’s closure and will likely feel the effects until a new grocery store is opened.
“The pandemic, in my opinion, certainly has worsened the situation. People are without work,” Bullington said. “I would love to say that it’s going to get better. I’m generally pretty optimistic about things, but this is really scary. I don’t know what people are going to do. I know that it’s a huge challenge right now.”
There are some bright spots throughout the region as organizations and businesses look to fill in the gaps. Bullington pointed out that Woodruff County has benefited from a farmers’ market established in 2019 that provides fresh produce in Augusta. She also helps with The Warehouse, a pop-up food pantry near McCrory that has seen its numbers “increased astronomically” since the pandemic hit.
While the farmers’ market was unable to begin until June, Bullington said it has been a critical resource for locals. “I do believe that helps because there’s good participation each month at the market. The produce vendors that we have sell out almost every month,” she said.
Others have taken an entrepreneurial tack to the food desert problem. In March, Perry and Chelsea Ball set up Lee County Roots Produce, a business that aims to provide locally grown food for the region. While there is a grocery store in Marianna, the county seat of Lee County, most of the county is rural with limited food options.
Originally, the business started as a hobby in 2019 with the married couple planting a small garden for personal use. The pandemic sparked the idea of starting a produce business.
“With the pandemic going on, we thought, ‘When’s a better time to plant more produce than we actually need because who knows if we would be able to get it or not at the grocery store?’” Chelsea Ball said.
Currently, the Balls have four acres of farmable land and used 2,000 square feet of that land this year, planting multiple types of lettuce, watermelon, cantaloupe, okra, banana peppers, yellow squash, butternut squash, oyster squash, pumpkins and more.
Perry Ball sees the business as an extension of his love for the outdoors and sourcing his own food, whether its picking dandelions for a dandelion salad or finding wild berries and nuts for a snack. Lee County Roots Produce is not only a business but a way to provide a service for the local community, supplementing the food choices and increasing the availability of locally grown food.
“The big thing to me is the area that we are in has very limited choices. If we can provide a vast array of vegetables and produce at a good price for people so they can feel like they’re getting as good a deal at the local produce versus going to the big box stores, then I feel like I’m doing a good service. People can start seeing the difference in locally grown produce that has a lot of love and passion put into it,” he said.
Part of Lee County Roots Produce’s success during the pandemic was its delivery strategy. The business currently operates solely by delivery with customers calling them and the Balls delivering the produce directly to clients. This practice eliminates the transportation problem that affects those living in food deserts. (The Balls do plan to start a physical food stand next year, though.)
Next year, the Balls plan to expand their crop, moving up to two acres of land. But don’t look for them to get too big. Perry intends to stay local, to keep the focus on quality produce without using chemicals or pesticides.
Solving the problem of food access won’t be accomplished overnight. It’s a complex web of socio-economic issues that affects a wide swath of Northeast Arkansas. As Webb admitted, “It’s not a completely simple problem to solve.”