- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

LAKE VILLAGE, Ark. (AP) - Lake Village will partner with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this year to plan expansions to the city’s community garden and trails, the agency announced last week.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (http://bit.ly/20tllni ) reports that the partnership builds on efforts to improve community health and the economy, which are already underway in the Delta city of 2,500.

“We’re just so excited about this,” said Mayor JoAnne Bush, mentioning the city’s health initiative, Healthy Hearts. “We think this is a huge piece to it.”

Lake Village is in Chicot County, which has some of the worst health statistics in Arkansas. It ranks 72nd out of 75 counties in health outcomes, which include life expectancy, obesity, smoking and mortality rate from heart disease and stroke.

In 2013, Lake Village decided to do something about it.

City officials created an initiative to expand the city’s access to healthy and fresh foods, and to connect more of the city’s assets with biking and walking trails.

“We’re a small community with very limited resources and very bad health statistics,” said Jennifer Conner, policy adviser with Healthy Hearts.

Conner said that with the area located in the rural, far southeast corner of Arkansas near the Mississippi River, healthy options for residents are limited by the geography.

“So we’ve got to create this within,” she said.

Much of the Arkansas Delta is considered a food desert, or “low-access community,” which is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a census tract where 500 people or at least 33 percent of the tract’s population lives more than a mile from the nearest supermarket or large grocery store. In rural areas, the qualifier is at least 10 miles.

Dermott, also in Chicot County, has a population of about 2,800. It recently lost its only grocery store, Conner said.

Lake Village has one grocery store and is partly considered a food desert, Conner said.

The EPA is working with 27 cities in the United States as part of its Local Foods, Local Places: Revitalizing Communities by Growing Local Food Economies program.

Lake Village is the only city in Arkansas in the program this year, but North Little Rock, Flippin and Osceola participated last year.

The program is not a financial one.

It provides assistance to many communities that may not have city planners or city engineers, and would otherwise have to pay to contract for planning and engineering services for projects they want to pursue, Conner said.

Last year, the assistance was used to help North Little Rock boost its regional food bank efforts, create a food hub and improve walkability and economic vibrancy in the city’s Argenta area, according to a June report on the partnerships.

In Flippin, assistance was used to create a new school garden and a new farmers market, and to start the planning for a new sidewalk connecting schools with the downtown area and a park. In Osceola, assistance was used to enhance education on healthy foods and cooking, and the city began plans for a farmers market downtown as part of a greater investment in the area.

In Lake Village, the program will include expanding the city’s community garden and work-site wellness programs for area businesses, according to the EPA.

It also will connect the city parks with new trail systems to “improve local food access, promote active living, and stimulate economic development.”

On Wednesday, the city completed construction on a trail that covers four city blocks and connects city facilities, parks and the community garden.

The city wants to expand the garden from 15 beds to 20.

Lake Village already has a farmers market downtown and a farmers market off a highway, where people can learn about the food they buy and how to cook it.

“Our whole initiative has really been around access and education,” Conner said.

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Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com

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