An Oct. 27 hearing at the state Capitol for an interim study by two Tulsa-area lawmakers on the subject of how to eliminate the state's "food deserts" helped shine some light on the issue, but solutions to the problem will be difficult to come up with in the current economic climate.
That's according to state Rep. Seneca Scott, D-Tulsa, who is conducting the interim study with fellow state Rep. Jabar Shumate, D-Tulsa. Their goal is to determine how best to provide economic incentives to rural and urban grocers offering healthy, affordable, locally grown produce and other foods.
That issue is of particular importance in north and west Tulsa, which have sizable populations with no access to a nearby grocery store. Many of those residents, who also lack convenient transportation options, are then forced to rely on a fast-food diet or consume foods much higher in fat and sodium which are a staple of nearby convenience stores.
Scott likes to refer to a map put together by Tulsa County Commissioner John Smaligo that indicates the location of every grocery store in a multi-county area. The lack of stores in much of that territory makes it clear how difficult it is for some residents to obtain nutritious food.
"That's proof of what's making us so unhealthy," Scott said. "We're using the convenience store as the grocery store in Oklahoma."
Oklahomans continue to rank at or near the bottom in national surveys regarding nutrition, obesity and overall health, partly because of the lack of access to healthy food for many residents of both urban and rural areas across the state. Scott said the state Health Department describes more than half the state as a food desert.
He said a number of national figures revealed during last week's hearing, including a representative of the Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based organization that works to increase access to nutritious foods and advocates for better public policy. Officials from the Oklahoma Grocers Association, the Oklahoma Food Policy Council and the state Department of Agriculture also took part.
But he was most pleased to see several state health officials in attendance, a signal to him that this is not simply an economic development issue.
Scott initially became interested in the subject because he saw it as a vehicle for promoting business growth in his struggling district. Health officials view it from a different angle, he said.
"They see this as a way to address the problem of childhood obesity, diabetes and other conditions that contribute to poor health," he said. "For them, it's all about access to quality, healthy groceries."
But funding incentive programs at a time when state government is facing budget problems won't be easy, he said.
"We could use a $10 million infusion (to fund a low- or no-interest loan program), but we have state agencies making 5 percent cuts, so it's a really tough time," he said. "Maybe we phase this in over a few sessions while we wait for an uptick in the economy."
Scott envisions taking advantage of programs that already exist by adapting them to meet specific needs. He cited the possibility that the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program--which allows qualifying low-income individuals to buy healthy food through a device that essentially works like a debit card--could be expanded to operate at farmers markets. Those markets, which have enjoyed a revival of late in many urban areas, are helping fill the void for fresh, healthy food that the lack of supermarkets has created. Scott cited figures indicating the number of farmers markets in Oklahoma has tripled in the last three years.
A great believer in the value of farmers markets is local developer Jamie Jameson, a member of the Pearl District Association board of directors that sponsors a large market during the summer in Central Park.
"Farmers markets have been around forever," he said. "It's almost a form of guerilla marketing. You make use of open land, and it requires no infrastructure ... They're very flexible, and therefore, very useful places. They bring together people who need the kind of healthy products that they produce with people who are looking to make living (growing) that produce in the first place."
Jameson has been an outspoken critic of the food desert situation that has persisted in north and west Tulsa, describing it as shocking.
"It's an indictment of a whole lot of people--former legislators, mayors and city managers," he said. "I've never lived anywhere where people had to travel for miles to purchase decent produce."
Jameson believes municipal parks departments can play a valuable strategic role in battling that problem by serving as the host site for farmers markets, much as Central Park does.
"In times of great fiscal pressure, like right now, we should be thinking of making the most of what we've got, and our community parks are a valuable civic asset," he said. "We should be using them to rekindle a sense of community and use them for farmers markets."
While those markets can be used as a stopgap measure, Scott and Shumate are looking for ways to provide incentives to mom-and-pop grocers who might be interested in opening markets in those underserved areas. One individual who already is trying to meet that need is Scott Smith, the proprietor of the Blue Jackalope, a small, neighborhood grocery at 306 S. Phoenix, just west of downtown in the Crosbie Heights neighborhood.
Smith has made the subject of the food desert in north and west Tulsa a favored cause of his for quite a while, but he said at some point, residents of underserved areas must take it on themselves to demand a better food supply.
He recalled attending a meeting of the North Tulsa Community Coalition that dealt with that subject.
"Everyone was bitching and moaning about the Pine-and-Peoria Albertson's not being open," he said. "I told everyone in the room, 'If you want good food in your neighborhood, go to the local convenience stores and tell them. They're business people, and they'll listen to you.' "
But Smith does not sound optimistic about anyone taking that to heart.
"Until the people in north Tulsa take an active part in helping themselves and bootstrapping themselves up, I'm not sure anything will be successful," he said.
Smith is one of the few business people in the area who have taken it upon themselves to battle the food desert problem. His market, which he opened last year in a renovated church, may not have a large inventory, but it offers the fresh produce, meats and other nutritious foods that convenience stores lack.
The measure of his store's success depends on your perspective, he said.
"We've got social success, and we've got financial success," he said, laughing. "Socially, we've been very successful, but financially, we're always hanging right on the edge of getting our bills paid. A quarter to a third of our customers come from outside a five-mile radius, so I recognize on some level that my store has this celebrity status that is putting its money where its mouth is. But the reality is, you've got to be economically viable."
Smith said one of the main difficulties facing stores his size is their inability to secure wholesale products at a cost that allows him to compete with area supermarkets, which have a distinct economy-of-scale advantage. Smith recently lost his distributor--a Little Rock, Ark.-based company that declared bankruptcy--and has been forced to look for another that can offer him the same selection at a similar price.
Smith approached a Kansas City-based cooperative that he believed would meet his needs, but he was told he needed to place a minimum order of $20,000 a week to join. That was far beyond his means, he said. But it did get him to thinking about the possibility of creating an association of 20 to 30 small, local grocers much like himself who could join the coop, place a weekly order and have it delivered to a centrally located distribution center.
"That way, we can purchase in bulk, and keep our wholesale prices low enough while putting enough markup on them to remain competitive," he said.
For now, that scheme remains a dream, and Smith struggles with a reduced inventory, even as his store is a center of neighborhood activity. He continues to advocate for change, but even he isn't sure what the answer is.
"The big problem is, no one knows what to do to help stimulate any initiative to get things going," he said.
Scott said he was extremely impressed by what he heard from officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's rural development office during last week's hearing, and he believes that agency has several programs that could help. Smith also hopes some of those USDA grants can be accessed to help incentivize grocers in Oklahoma.
"But we really need to assign a task force at the state level to find funding opportunities," he said. "I don't know what they are, but this is a great bipartisan issue everybody cares about.
"I think everybody here is tired of seeing us trend 47th, 48th, 49th on health issues," he continued. "As an agricultural state, we should be feeding our own, rather than selling everything off in the commodity market."
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