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Arlington's food deserts, pedestrian safety take center stage in new city pilot program

A large, beige building with columns and windows.
Bret Jaspers
The city of Arlington received a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the American Beverage Foundation for a Healthy America for a pilot program that will search ways to bridge health disparities.

A pilot program in Arlington will map walking routes, sidewalk conditions, healthy food and city services in areas where residents face higher obesity rates, lower income and so-called "food deserts."

Arlington received a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the American Beverage Foundation for a Healthy America.

The city placed second in its size category in the 2023 Childhood Obesity Prevention and Environmental Health and Sustainability Awards for the proposal. It was one of nine cities to receive funding.

Both the city government and UT Arlington’s sustainability office will use the grant for the pilot program, Healthy Connections, in central and east Arlington.

The two regions hold the majority of eight census tracts that the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers to be low income and have limited availability to food options, or what’s known as “food deserts.”

Patricia Sinel, city long-range planning manager, said the city applied while searching for ways to bridge health disparities identified in the city’s Unity Council report.

The 2021 study identified a lack of healthy food choices; lack of information about healthy options and city services; and the city’s consistent low ranking in healthiest city reports.

“In looking at that, we thought, ‘What could we do as planning and as well as involving our health services team, what can we do?’” said Patricia Sinel, city long-range planning manager.

The city will pull from an earlier effort to tackle Unity Council recommendations. City leaders last June approved zoning changes that limit the amount of new dollar and discount stores in town. The Healthy Connections program will pull data the city compiled during the policy discussion on stores with produce sections.

Healthy Connections will consist of a webpage that links existing community health programs; a web series and local activities surrounding sustainability and healthy activities; and walking routes for children and families. The city will also create a database of existing sidewalks in central and east Arlington based on “walk audits”—a method of taking stock on pedestrian conditions.

Sinel cited Walkable Arlington, a grassroots pedestrian safety coalition of UTA students, who have conducted multiple walk audits throughout the city, including two in downtown. The group has worked closely with UTA, city government and Downtown Arlington Management Corporation over the past two years.

“We liked what they presented to us. It wasn’t always kind, but it was necessary about the access we have on sidewalks, and there’s even parts of Arlington where there’s no sidewalks at all,” Sinel said. She added that the program will help the city “create not only a better connection between downtown and UTA, but also looking at the areas in the city that are hardest hit by the lack of sidewalks, and those are central and eastern Arlington.”

Tony Pham, Walkable Arlington’s community and research coordinator, said he’s glad city officials have been receptive of the group’s work and plans to put more resources than the group can into pedestrian safety.

“Thanks to the fact that we’ve had a lot more interest, especially from our group, I think that has really shown to the city that this is a really big issue, especially for the new generation,” Pham said.

The program will last through 2023, and the city and UTA must present its finding to the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the American Beverage Foundation for a Healthy America, Sinel said.

She added that she hopes the pilot program becomes a permanent fixture beyond its initial grant funding.

“We’re going to get a lot done in a year and then, hopefully, it’s something that we can continue on for many years to come in Arlington,” Sinel said.

The program also lays the groundwork for creating more pedestrian-friendly spaces in town, she said. Current development and redevelopment policies call for sidewalks. And while the city cannot tell property owners to install sidewalks, they can identify spots to work on in the years to come.

“The big start for us will be finding out where the troublesome areas are so we can see what other projects and programs are available to help us out in that case,” she said.

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Kailey Broussard is a reporter for KERA and The Texas Newsroom through Report for America (RFA). Broussard covers the city of Arlington, with a focus on local and county government accountability.