Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a series on the cost of living in the Fort Smith area.
From planting seeds in his garden to tracking every penny, Isaac works hard to put food on his table and support his neighbors. The little things make a big difference when budgets are tight.
Isaac, a Fort Smith resident who preferred not to give his last name, lined up outside Antioch Youth and Family May 18 for the organization’s weekly distribution.
“I’ve worked all my life and I’m proud of it…that my parents taught me how to make a living by the sweat of my brow…I’m not hungry,” he said. “I’m taking this stuff to keep surviving.”
Grocery prices have risen 10.8% since last year, with the biggest increase being for meats. Gas rose 43.6%, according to the latest consumer price index.
“This economy is going to hurt a lot of people, and a lot of these people on fixed incomes are going to really dip into their pockets,” said Danny, a Cedarville resident who preferred not to give his last name.
“That’s why you see so many here, right now, trying to get food,” he added, pointing to the line of cars driving down 32nd Street and out onto Grand Avenue.
Charolette Tidwell, founder and director of Antioch for Youth and Family, pointed out that the need has existed longer than this current period of inflation, with price gouging placing a greater burden on families.
She said predatory pricing must be eliminated through legislation.
“It’s a signal of an absence of humanity,” Tidwell said. “How can you, in a crisis, not consider others?”
Food insecurity in Fort Smith
On average, nearly one in five people lived at or below the poverty line from 2016 to 2020 in Fort Smith, according to U.S. Census data.
Feeding America, the largest national hunger relief organization, estimated in 2021 that one in eight people would experience food insecurity. With rising inflation and the growing financial burden on low-income families, that number is likely to be the same or higher in 2022.
Given the high level of need, Tidwell said research must continue on solutions to food insecurity.
“It’s never just one thing,” she said, describing how poverty translates into a variety of factors in addition to lack of access to food. This includes transportation, safe and affordable housing, and the effects of incarceration on families.
That’s why Tidwell brought the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based economic and social policy research organization, to Fort Smith in 2019 to study poverty in Sebastian County.
Tidwell and his team of volunteers will continue to serve on the front lines, directly supporting families with fresh food.
She said it’s important for service providers to pool resources, especially for people who don’t have transportation.
Tidwell said service providers should “meet people where they are” because if they don’t, organizations aren’t serving well.
voice of the people
Tidwell said community and national leaders need to listen to people with lived experiences of poverty to understand better.
“The decision makers are the people who are not in the trenches of life,” she said.
Many decisions at the local level happen at town meetings, where community members weigh in on the impact of solutions.
Researchers from Boston University found that public commentators at town meetings are more likely to be older, white men who own their homes and vote in local elections, often not representing the diversity of their communities. These participants are also more likely to express their opposition to proposed measures, such as the construction of new housing.
Service providers alone will not solve the systemic problem of poverty. Effective solutions come from those with resources collaborating with people who have first-hand experience of the issues to strengthen their community, Tidwell said.
“Community engagement is needed at the level closest to the need.”