Josh Harris is Making Sure Arkansans are Well Fed
By Katie Zakrzewski // Photos by Ian Lyle
Josh Harris has been working to address the issue of food insecurity in the Natural State for nearly three years. But it was when Harris fell ill that he developed a new appreciation for the important role that nutrition plays in our lives.
“I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease six years ago, and was very sick to the point of being bedridden for months,” Harris says. “Diet was an important part of recovery, and I did lots of research into nutrition. It helped me develop a new appreciation for food as medicine.”
By working with Mosaic Church, Harris found out about the problem of food insecurity that the city of Little Rock faces that the city of Little Rock was facing. He moved his wife and three kids to Little Rock, determined to combat hunger.
“Former Little Rock Mayor [Mark] Stodola had an idea to develop food access mobility in order to get healthy food to people in food deserts, and to outsource farmer produce,” Harris explains.
With the former mayor’s initiative, Fresh 2 You, a food pantry in the form of a mobile bus, worked together with many other nonprofits, such as the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, to conduct research and procure volunteers.
But Harris always wanted to do more. He could see the gaps and inefficiencies of the current structure addressing food insecurity. After two years of serving as the volunteer director for Fresh 2 You, Harris launched Well Fed.
“During the time I was serving in those needy communities, I saw the big need to do more,” Harris says. “I wanted to create something that could both improve on and complement the current food access system. Especially when COVID-19 hit, I saw how inequitable healthy food access was. There were plenty of pantries giving away something, but I didn’t see a systemic solution to the deeper problems of diet-related issues rampant in low-income communities.”
Well Fed partners with local and state organizations, problem of food insecurity that the city of Little Rock faces as well as other nonprofits that are dedicated to a similar cause, so that food is efficiently allocated alongside informative nutritional education.
“We go into communities, we provide only healthy foods, and we always bring education and empowerment with our programs,” Harris says. “There are so many great organizations working to fight food insecurity, and each has their own specialty or expertise. My passion was to try to bring some of this different expertise together. This is a collective approach to fighting food insecurity, by working with existing organizations already involved in underserved communities.”
Harris explains how Well Fed is a new and different approach.
“Well Fed works at strategically, sourcing a healthy diet of foods that is predictable for every community that we serve,” he says. “We have education partners now, such as UAMS and SNAP-Ed, two great professional education partners. They come to communities with us, and we provide the food, relationships, and logistics, while they offer nutrition and cooking advice. What’s new about Well Fed is a holistic, strategic approach to solving food insecurity through programming. Now, we see the solution is not only providing free healthy food, but also educating and empowering families forward in their health journey.”
As of publishing, Well Fed provides educational programming through their partners at the UAMS Culinary Medicine Department and the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Arkansas. These partners go to the mobile markets that Well Fed hosts in communities and do a short education segment related to healthy cooking and eating. Already this year Well Fed has been able to feed and educate more than 1,000 families through its programs.
Harris explains that the best food systems should include local agriculture. For this reason, Well Fed sources their fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms, gardens and veteran- or minority-owned grocers and wholesalers.
“We want to help both those who need food and those who grow food,” Harris says.
Since Harris has been working in the community for a while now, he has been able to build relationships with several communities and community leaders. As a result, he has seen the needs and where there are gaps in the food system that are not being met.
“Seeing the gaps has given me more energy and passion to do the things that aren’t necessarily being done by other organizations,” Harris shares. “We see an incredible need in low-income communities that are underserved, that do not have equitable food access, living in a food desert. We typically know about those communities through city data and because of the connections that we’re building with these organizations.”
Communities reach out to Well Fed for help, because they’re aware of the organization’s ability and reputation.
“Our strategy is to focus on communities that we have relationships with, as well as identifying community needs and community stakeholders, which is a beneficial strategy because we know that utilizing the leadership that’s already in the community leads to an effective return on investment,” Harris explains.
The pandemic emphasized the importance of organizations such as Well Fed.
“I think the pandemic really highlighted what was there before, which was an inequitable food system,” he says. “It brought to light that things need to change and that we need to work harder as a city and a state to make sure that everyone has access to healthy food and nutrition. One of the best things that we can do to keep our bodies healthy is monitor what we eat. Lack of access to healthy foods makes many communities more susceptible to illness.”
With a coalition of leaders and experts across the state, Harris is excited to conduct outreach in more rural areas of the state that he hasn’t been in contact with yet.
“We are really excited about reaching into rural communities outside of the Little Rock area. There is a huge need for healthy and consistent food access in these areas because we see lots of poverty in the rural areas of Arkansas,” Harris elaborates. “Those towns and cities are in desperate need of solutions. We’re working on getting the agriculture that we grow to families that need it, not just in big cities, but in rural towns. We’re reaching out to the Delta, and continuing to expand into those areas that are food deserts and food insecure. A second thing is that we’re really excited about working with schools. We are ready to launch a program in schools that would provide healthy fruits and vegetables to send home with kids. If we come in alongside what’s already there in those schools, we can further improve the health of children.”
Well Fed is always in need of volunteers and partners. Whether volunteers would like to help feed communities, or whether local businesses would like to team up with Well Fed’s mission, Harris is thankful for any and all help.
“We are always looking for those who want to come be ‘Food Heroes’ with us,” he exclaims. “Well Fed’s mission is to ensure that every man, woman and child has access to two vital things: nutritious food and nutrition education. Well Fed feeds, teaches and empowers families to eat, cook and live healthier. The fight against hunger will not be solved by simply handing out food — we must also equip families with tools to live healthy and whole.”
For more information on Well Fed and to get involved, visit its website at wellfedar.org.