The Fort Smith region's "moderately high" food insecurity rate is compounded by other factors, according to the Urban Institute and a local relief worker.
Urban Institute has listed rising housing and transportation costs and a lack of good-paying jobs in the area as contributing factors to food insecurity in the city. Coupled with the area's incarceration rate, said Antioch for Youth & Family Director Charolette Tidwell, almost one in five people and approximately one in four children in the city are food insecure, according to a Feeding America survey.
Sebastian County household income is on average $2,000 less than the Arkansas average of $42,000. The survey also lists a "wide racial disparity" in household income — Hispanics in the county on average make $32,000 per year, while blacks make $23,000 per year, according to American Community Security estimates.
"In Fort Smith, they are trying to make it better, but they mostly think about the middle class, not the lower class," said a teenager interviewed during a food insecurity walk earlier in 2019.
Residents on average spend 31% of their household income on transportation, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Tidwell said money that residents spend on transportation could otherwise be spent on food.
The transportation itself also causes problems for food insecure residents, Tidwell said.
"They can’t get on the bus and carry the box on the bus with the food," she said. "They have limited access to transportation in the first place, then they have limited funds in the second place."
Sebastian County also has a higher incarceration rate than the state and the country, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. Restore Hope Director Paul Chapman said the region before 2018 received about 700-800 inmates returning from prison each year.
While Tidwell said offenders should be punished for their actions, she said the system is not designed to accommodate those who wish to return to society. She used a drug offender she knows named Jamie as an example.
"Jamie gets off at 3 a.m. in the morning from a job in Van Buren, and she’s in a group home in Fort Smith. Jamie has to be in drug court at 7 a.m., and after that, she has to come over here and do community service," Tidwell said. "Some leniency or some thought should be to Jamie."
Antioch Marketing Director Ken Kupchick said incarceration also places a burden on families, especially if the incarcerated person was the provider before he or she was taken to prison.
"Nobody equates the incarceration rate to the families, and that’s where it gets you," he said.
In spite of these challenges, Urban Institute workers pointed out that the number of nonprofits in Sebastian County compared to the size of the community is an advantage. The study stated most of the nonprofit leaders know each other "and can easily communicate and meet with city officials."
But even with this advantage, they said Fort Smith leaders need to include more minority populations in conversations about food insecurity and poverty. Stakeholders in the study even acknowledged the lack of representation of minorities in community conversations.
"There is a large percentage of the population who no one asks what they think. There is very little engagement of poor people into the problem-solving area. They’re not on boards, nobody asks them to be on committees. They’re not involved with the issues of the place they stay. I have a big problem with that," Tidwell said. "If we want to know how to help people, we have to talk to them."