For most of us in Tulsa it's all around us. Too many of us obsess over it and consume too much of it; for others, especially a small subset of children here in town, there's never enough of it, and what is available is not the good stuff.
Everywhere in America there is a profound rethink of food, the nature of what we eat and the impacts of bad food on our healthcare/health cost dynamics. Food has become a hot topic that many bright, energetic folks in Oklahoma and elsewhere are looking at with new eyes.
Seneca Scott, one of these folks, is a state representative who hails from Tulsa and is a leading member of T-town's food "security" coalition. He, together with his colleague Jabar Shumate, also of Tulsa, have been highly instrumental in creating a set of state initiatives designed to help smaller grocery outfits to secure discount access to fresh fruits and vegetables, something that has for years been the nearly exclusive reserve of big or chain affiliated stores.
Scott's excellent work on food access, anti-obesity and urban agriculture is ably supported by the "sentinels" of Tulsa's food "movement" including Tulsa's first lady Victoria Bartlett, health systems guru Russ Burkhart, developer Jamie Jamison, food/micro-store pioneers Scott Smith and Katie Flohocky, lawyer/foodie Julie Hall and the sadly (and very recently) deceased Gwen Goff and Stephan Eberle.
The New Downtown Grocery Pioneers:
There used to be a Safeway store on the corner of 11th and Denver, a fascinating place that a friend referred to as the "Fellini Safeway", after the iconoclastic Italian filmmaker. Patronized by folks of every hue, social niche and income bracket, this store met a demand for food and groceries for the downtown population and for many folks who lived in the midtown area. "Fellini" has been out of commission since the late 80s -- its demise has many lessons.
Daniel Cameron and Blake Ewing are Tulsa entrepreneurs who will soon be opening grocery operations downtown. Cameron is a gangly guy with steely eyes, formal training as a physical anthropologist and a deep "ag" background.
Modeled, in part, on the compelling in store retail concept developed by Ron Johnson for Apple Inc., Cam's will be strong on customer service, delivery and interestingly, a bevy of classes on cooking, food prep, nutrition and healthy eating.
Blue Dome Digs.
At 7,000 square feet, the new venture will be in Tulsa's Blue Dome District and will contain a grocery, an eatery/café, a produce space, meat offerings and a regular assortment of grocery items.
Ewing, owner of several small businesses, is a serial entrepreneur and will open Archer Market in November. With a space inside of the new Detroit Lofts condo project, on a bottom floor thoughtfully set aside for retail, and located in Tulsa's Brady District, Ewing's venture will offer local produce, dry and refrigerated stuff and a deli -- all in a 3,000 square foot space.
With the exception of the Blue Jackalope, a sort of micro grocery, which is on the periphery of downtown and just west of same on 3rd & Charles Page, these two new grocery ventures are the first of their kind for the downtown area in many, many years.
The Food Re-look
There are three reasons for the great re-look:
First, is the profound, still being explicated, bio-systems connection between food and health. In its simplest aspect, this is an obvious circuit for most people but it's gotten a lot of attention in Oklahoma lately because of the terrible nexus between excessive/bad food consumption, obesity and bad metabolics.
Part of our problem -- believe it or not -- is a paucity of grocery outlets; there are very few grocery outlets in north Tulsa, west Tulsa and downtown. An excellent series of public policy briefs crafted by Oklahoma's Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture offers up a lot of detail -- the Center's groundbreaking "Closer to Home: Healthier Food, Farms and Families in Oklahoma" is a powerful portrait of Oklahoma's many food challenges. The report is a tough look at stark access, large-scale nutritional deficits and a bevy of affordability issues.
The Center last year highlighted the fact that Oklahoma is 7th nationally among the "50" in food insecurity, with over 13 percent of the population classified as food insecure: well above the 11.3 percent national average.
The second impetus for the food re-look is the increasingly loony, unsustainable character of our food production and distribution systems. Often fruits and vegetables travel hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles to Tulsa to appear in a grocery display. Why can't Oklahoma, with all of our legendary farming and ranching experience, produce sufficient vegetables, fruits, poultry and other meat products to meet demand in our locality? And why can't we do it in a cost-effective fashion?
Much of the problem, if recent films like Robert Kenner's Food Inc. and former Tulsan Don McCorkell's River of Waste are to be believed, stems from our massive industrialization of agriculture and our permissive use of antibiotics, growth hormones and horrific animal "housing" practices in meat production.
A countervailing trend is the emergence of organic and local food production players in many parts of the country including here in Oklahoma; something that is a fascinating part of the strategy at the heart of Cameron's new downtown Cam's venture.
The third leg of this "change" tripod is the surprisingly vigorous interest among some farmers, savvy investors, some public policy folks and a small but eclectic clutch of entrepreneurs in what some call "Ag 2.0": urban agriculture, novel grocery/food outlets, inner-city fish farms, vertical farming and some related plays.
In a couple of weeks, I'll look at some urban farming initiatives in Tulsa, the challenge of "food deserts" in north and west Tulsa, some wild experimentation that Walmart and other big box grocery leaders have underway that should matter to Tulsans, a new legislative initiative that's highly relevant and the surprising employment and job growth that might come from a "New Ag" trajectory for Green Country.
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