A bill by a Tulsa legislator designed to make it easier for those interested in opening healthy corner grocery stores to access the capital they need will likely be heard by the state House of Representatives this week.
House Bill 3015 by Rep. Seneca Scott, D-Tulsa, designated as the Oklahoma Agricultural Linked Deposit Act, essentially would make so-called healthy corner stores--those certified by the state Department of Agriculture as ones that market fresh fruits and vegetables, and other nutritious foods, and for which the sale of beer and tobacco products constitutes less than 10 percent of their gross sales--eligible for agricultural linked deposit loans of up to $350,000. The bill is intended to promote the growth of such stores in underserved areas of the state known as "food deserts," or places without easy access to healthy, nutritious food.
"Straight up and down, it's an effort to put more capital into food-related enterprises and address food deserts," Scott said.
The Tulsa legislator has high hopes for the bill.
"I think it can have a great impact, but that's dependent on having a few leaders in the pack willing to be pioneers," Scott said.
The bill breezed through a committee hearing on Feb. 24 by an 11-0 vote and should be heard by the full House sometime this week, he said.
"It's interesting," Scott said after the committee hearing. "Everyone understands this is a common need for rural and urban areas alike."
Scott's legislation is the product of an interim legislative study he conducted last fall with fellow state Rep. Jabar Shumate, D-Tulsa. The goal of that study was to determine how to best provide economic incentives to rural and urban grocers offering healthy, affordable, locally grown produce and other nutritious foods.
The districts Shumate and Scott represent--primarily north and west Tulsa and other surrounding communities--in the Legislature are good examples of areas where many residents lack access to healthy food and convenient transportation options. Too often, Scott has said, residents of those areas have to rely on local convenience stores for their grocery shopping, resulting in a diet high in sugar, fat and sodium, contributing to the fact that Oklahoma ranks near the bottom in national rankings for nutrition, obesity and overall health.
But the issue extends well beyond the metropolitan Tulsa area, Scott has said, pointing to the fact that the state Health Department classifies more than half the state as a food desert.
Scott has been trying to address the problem from a number of angles, though most of those efforts are focused on the goal of increasing the number of healthy corner stores--essentially what folks used to call mom-and-pop grocery stores, he said.
After the completion of the interim study last fall, Scott said what the state really needed was an infusion of money to fund a low- or no-interest loan program for those interested in opening healthy corner stores. But he acknowledged those funds would not be easy to find with the state budget facing a severe shortfall.
"Some of the other ideas we came up with (in the study), it was hard to have a source of capital without it costing the state money," Scott said.
What he came up with instead was a bill that would allow mom-and-pop grocers to access a loan program that has already existed for several years. The agricultural linked deposit program, overseen by the state treasurer's office, was created to allow farmers to purchase equipment.
"We combed different venues for revenue," Scott said. "It wasn't an exhaustive search, but this is what we found. It's pretty exciting to think about it."
The program assists participating banks in lowering their interest rates on loans for qualifying farms and agriculture-related businesses, according to Scott's office. Those loans usually have an interest rate of up to 3 percent less than the current two-year Oklahoma Treasury rate.
Scott has said those interest savings are passed on to the borrower from the bank.
"Linked deposits as a loan source have been underutilized for the last year because interest rates have been so low," Scott said. "But we're thinking interest in the program will pick up as this issue receives more media attention, and it becomes known the state has this pool of capital for both rural and urban areas."
The program creates a partnership between the state and private-sector lenders, he said.
"It's win-win for the public and private sectors," he said, noting that making healthy corner stores eligible for such loans would provide Oklahoma farmers with more outlets for their produce.
Scott said he's also trying to help broker a deal between a prospective buyer and the seller of a property on state Highway 11 in Sperry--essentially North Peoria Avenue--for a much-needed grocery store.
"That falls into a food desert," he said of the site. "We're trying to find a model (for a healthy corner store) that works for a bit more of a rural area."
One healthy corner store that has been serving residents just west of downtown Tulsa, the Blue Jackalope at 306 S. Phoenix in the Crosbie Heights neighborhood, for the past few years will be getting a bit of a facelift this week, thanks to the efforts of a group of University of Tulsa students.
On Saturday, March 6, those TU students will be performing a day of community service by landscaping the area around the Blue Jackalope, which has turned into a community gathering spot under the guidance of owner Scott Smith, an outspoken advocate of the need for more enterprises like his own.
"It's an effort to give it a shot in the arm," Scott said.
Plans are also moving forward to open a healthy corner store in the Brady Heights area just north of downtown, Scott said. A couple living in that neighborhood--Justin and Leah Pickard--have said they have plans to open the Latimer Store at 210 W. Latimer by the middle of the summer, offering fresh, nutritious food in an area now served only by a convenience store.
Additionally, Scott said a number of interested parties are continuing to discuss plans for creating a distribution/coop organization in the Tulsa area that would benefit its members from an economy-of-scale aspect. Members would place orders in bulk from a wholesaler, who would deliver the order to a central warehouse. From there, the merchandise would be distributed to the individual locations.
Scott said that effort may benefit from the participation of several local nonprofit groups that purchase large amounts of food for their constituents, though the plan has not been fleshed out yet.
"They have a lot of the same issues as small grocery stores," he said.
In the meantime, Scott is excited about seeing his bill work its way through the Legislature after a year of hard work on the issue.
"Yeah, I feel good about it," he said. "People want to see different resources put into underserved areas."
Despite the warm reception his measure has gotten so far, Scott declined to venture a guess about how it might fare if it proceeds to the state Senate, where Sen. Tom Ivester, D-Sayre, serves as its author.
"No, that's a whole other world," he said. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
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