The Arkansas Journal of Social Change and Public Service, a volunteer effort by UALR’s Bowen Law students, held its first public symposium on Friday. The topic was food, policy and community in Arkansas. I missed the macro-policy debates in the afternoon, but the morning panels amounted to a solid discussion on how to broaden access to local food.
The 40-person audience was a mix of food service distributors, chefs hoping to get into the food truck business, representatives from Heifer International and other hunger relief organizations, folks from the Department of Human Services, the Boozman College of Public Health, the Clinton School and the Bowen Law School.
The second panel, “Food trucks in the Little Rock landscape” was largely about the relationship and friction between food trucks and brick and mortar restaurants — in other words, nothing new. Eric Tinner, owner of Sufficient Grounds Cafe and The Sports Page, represented downtown restaurants. He cited the significantly higher overhead for brick and mortar businesses, and how, on Food Truck Fridays, some of his colleagues have lost 20 percent of their business. “We need smaller businesses [filling the empty storefronts downtown] to draw people in, and food trucks are not it. They’re a temporary solution. They don’t invest in the infrastructure,” he said. Specifically, he named El Japeno, a food truck turned downtown brick and mortar, that recently closed, and All American Wings, which moved from its downtown location because, according to Tinner, “he could not compete with the lower prices [of food trucks.]” Tinner maintains that the city of Little Rock and the Downtown Little Rock Partnership have only aggravated the situation.
Sharon Priest said, “The Partnership’s mission is not to bring food trucks into downtown…we’re trying to bring downtown back to life. That’s our goal, and we’ve been pretty successful thus far.” The Partnership sponsors Food Truck Fridays at the Capitol and Main intersection in autumn and spring and has held two food truck festivals so far. The first festival had 17 food trucks and crowds of 5,000. This year’s festival had 29 food trucks, a cold, constant drizzle, and crowds of 2,700.
“I’m a member of the Partnership, and it’s difficult for us to pay dues every month to something that undermines our business,” Tinner said.
Another panel member, Justin Patterson with food truck Southern Gourmasian, said, “No scientific evidence exists that indicates food trucks hurt businesses.”
Bryan Day and Tony Bozynski, the assistant manager and the director of planning and development for the city, agree that the city has done little to address the food truck boom issues beyond basic health, zoning and licensing requirements. They admit that they get complaints, not just from brick and mortar restaurants but from other neighborhood business owners and residents who claim that food trucks are disrupting business or blocking traffic. Day said that the city will probably have to address these issues in the near future, and that they have looked at other municipalities that charge food trucks higher licensing fees or, in the case of Las Vegas, don’t allow food trucks within a certain distance of brick and mortar restaurants.
Patterson said, “A lot of the policies have been enacted against food trucks to protect brick and mortar restaurants. That can’t just be what it’s about.”
Jennifer Harrison of University Market@Four Corners, a food truck court managed by Mosaic Church in Southwest Little Rock, said that their mission is “to bring more affordable food to an underserved area. We charge very little for food trucks to park there, so they can pass their savings on.” The goal, which she judges successful thus far, is to get people outside, socializing (they have picnic tables), and help residents reclaim the public sphere in a somewhat dangerous area.
Amanda Philyaw-Perez, with UAMS, pressed Harrison on the issue. “Have you looked at customer demographics, because food trucks tend to serve a specific [white, upper income] demographic — is 4Corners really serving that [Latino, lower income] community?”
Harrison said that the court offers a range of meals — anywhere from $3-10, and that it serves hairstylists and people that work at Murry’s theater, as well as business professionals.
Someone in the audience pointed out that food trucks aren’t contributing to the community in ways that go beyond infrastructure — they’re not donating food to pantries like restaurants do. Patterson noted that food trucks waste a lot less food and don’t have the excess of restaurants.
The point Philyaw-Perez’s made about the demographics served by food trucks (and local food) was illustrated by both morning panels (all white) and the audience (99% white). On the “trends in food and commerce in Arkansas,” there were two restaurants represented — the Root and Boulevard Bread — which largely cater to the same clientele. The discussion was productive in that it raised many important questions, some less obvious than others, but there was a definite lack of perspective from the minority and lower income communities that I assume the Arkansas Journal of Social Change and Public Service is hoping to enfranchise. (Other panelists were Damian Thompson, coordinator of Dunbar Gardens, and Jody Hardin, a fifth generation farmer who founded the Certified Arkansas Farmers Markets.)
Perez mentioned that even though organic and local foods have become trendier, Arkansans as a whole consumed less produce in 2009 (20% getting the recommended five daily servings) than they did in 1996 (34 % getting five servings). “This movement is only growing in certain socioeconomic demographics,” she said. The panel consensus seemed to be that perhaps restaurants and institutions, such as school and hospital cafeterias, would use local food if the infrastructure were in place. Perez, Hardin and other individuals and nonprofits are trying to organize an aggregation of small, local farmers who could band together to take on the expense of bureaucracy, food storage and distribution in order to better supply Central Arkansas with consistent local food. Thus far, most Arkansas farmers have to choose between distributing hyper-locally, via farmers markets, or growing for a large corporation.
And food safety regulation is inarguably important, but it some ways, it is part of the problem. The cost of certifications and inspections — farmers must pay to have every crop individually inspected if they want to supply public institutions — is part of why grocery stores and public schools serve and sell food that comes, largely, from beyond the state’s borders. According to Hardin, Arkansas exports $8 million food dollars that could be funneled back into rural communities and consumes about one percent of what it grows. In both rural and urban Arkansas, there is a similar access problem. Rural Arkansans may live in towns that are too small to support big supermarkets or even farmer’s markets and in some urban neighborhoods, there are plenty of convenience stores and fast food restaurants within walking distance, but there are no supermarkets with fresh produce. As Americans, we spend about 9.4% of our income of food. For a family of three earning just above $25,000 (the cut off for food assistance from SNAP), this means they spend about $200 a month on food, or a little over $2 a person per meal. Local food is expensive because operations are too small to benefit from subsidies or to easily absorb bureaucratic costs. She challenges Arkansans who can afford it to buy locally, because the state is at a crucial tipping point and needs to sustain small farms while infrastructure issues are tackled.
Jack Sundell mentioned that there is not enough consciously-grown local food to meet all the needs of even the few restaurants that are choosing local suppliers, and that a small farm development technology center might be one solution, to encourage people from all backgrounds to choose careers in sustainable farming.