ARMA — Over the past year Arma residents now have more access to healthy foods through a community garden, a community pantry, education and more. 

A year-end banquet celebrated the work of the Arma Nutrition Council thus far.  

Through Live Well Crawford County, which received a grant from the Kansas Health Foundation as part of the Healthy Communities Initiative to improve health equity in Kansas, Arma was provided a community liaison, Matt O’Malley, who did extensive research on the area.  

Improving health equity is a “way of saying that some whole groups of people are at a disadvantage on being as healthy as they could be just because maybe where they live,” O’Malley said during the event.

The closest grocery store to Arma is eight miles, they are 10 miles from a pantry — such as Wesley Houses’ emergency pantry — 10 miles from The Lord’s Diner and 13 miles away from a community garden. According to O’Malley, Crawford County is one of the poorest counties in Kansas and there is a low median income level. “It’s even lower than county average in Arma,” he said. In addition, approximately 40 percent of children in Kansas are on the free or reduced school lunch program and in Crawford County that number is 57 percent. 

“Arma is one of the higher numbers in the county,” O’Malley said. “That’s almost 80 percent of the kids at the school district who receive free or reduced priced school lunches. So that let us know that the work we want to do needs to happen in Arma.

“When you look at the income level and poverty and things and compare them to how far you are from the grocer who supplies healthy foods, you are at a disadvantage on being as healthy as you could be simply based on where you live.” 

O’Malley visited with the Arma City Council to inform them of ways his organization would like to help. 

“One of the most impactful things after the meeting was that I was heading to my car and Brenda Banks came chasing after me and said, ‘Hey, I’m the director here at the library,’” O’Malley said, adding that she said the library wanted to be involved. She shared with him that the library has a lunch program for the summertime and approximately 100 kids a day come in and get a free lunch. 

“That’s how we found the trusted person and trusted place in Arma, she found us,” O’Malley said. 

Community conversations were held to gather input. 

“We talked about how often residents made meals with healthy foods and what came out of that conversation was just a powerful quote that somebody said that unhealthy behaviors and lifestyles are going to become normal and unhealthy parents are going to raise unhealthy children and that cycle once it starts is really hard to break.” O’Malley said.

At the meetings they discussed what they felt was missing for Arma Residents. They listed projects which they believed would increase access to healthy foods. These projects included: a once-a-month farmers market; organizing a share and trade group; building blessing boxes; a teaching space saving gardening; operating a year-round high tunnel; increasing public transportation; reaching out to local farmers; increasing the number of bags allowed on busses; getting Dollar General to “sell real food”; making Highway 69 to Dollar General Safer; getting the city council more engaged; funding meals for low income people; opening a new grocery store, and letting the community know about resources. 

They also created a list of people who care about this issue and people or organizations that they could partner with to make their projects happen. The group narrowed down their list and voted on the top five projects and then top two. These are a community garden, greenhouse, monthly market, food pantry and nutrition education. 

Previous to it being built the Arma Nutrition Council asked the Arma City Council to allow for a community garden to be located on city park land, they asked to allow the Public Works Department to install water lines and meter at no cost and lastly they asked if the city could pay the community garden’s water bill indefinitely. They received a unanimous approval and the community garden was built in late spring/early summer. 

The Nutrition Council was able to mark off another project. They expanded the Northeast High School pantry and established a new community-wide pantry at Arma City Library. After meeting with The Lord’s Diner it was decided that the diner would expand its outreach to Arma and volunteers would also bring food to some of the residents in communities surrounding Arma. 

The council has also partnered with other organizations to explore more ways to improve food systems. The K-State Research & Extension Wildcat District works with the council to provide education classes at the Arma City Library, Kansas Appleseed is helping Arma residents with voting and providing candidate forums, and Arma Economic Development is helping with grocery deliveries. 

During the year-end banquet, O’Malley recognized Banks for stepping up as a leader and her willingness to help her community. 

“None of this really would have happened if I would have left that city council meeting without really any direction, we definitely wouldn’t be where we are right now,” O’Malley said. “So several of us came together and decided that we wanted to recognize our volunteer of the year, someone who is doing so much in this community and just keeps doing more and more and a lot of people have no idea how she does it.”