TULSA, Okla. — Tens of thousands of Oklahomans living in food deserts continue to struggle without grocery stores.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 23.5 million people in the U.S. live in food deserts. They are typically people with low income, living miles away from the nearest grocery store. In Tulsa alone, 19 percent of the population falls into this category.
Donyetta Thrower lives in west Tulsa and waits in line at the grocery store every Monday. She said, “I have a heart condition, and I have to have fresh food all the time.”
But Thrower's grocery store is on wheels, because she lives in one of the many areas of Tulsa without access to fresh food. Thrower said, “I used to have to go to the farmer’s market way out somewhere on a bus... but we don’t have readily access to the bus either.”
Katie Plohocky, executive director of the Healthy Community Food Store Initiative and R&G Family Grocers explained, “If you’re taking a bus, typically it’s a four-hour round-trip to go grocery shopping and you can only take what you can carry.” That’s why Plohocky revved up the engine for the mobile grocery store.
She said, “Food deserts didn’t just happen. It’s been decades of disinvestment in our communities.” Plohocky explained, “In the 50s and 60s, we started seeing suburban flight. The big box stores started coming in and locating on the external parts of town. The wholesale distributors started buying each other up, so they became a giant conglomerate.” Plohocky said mom and pop grocery stores can’t afford to compete with that, so they’ve just shut down, and the results are staggering.
She said residents in north Tulsa live 12 years less than residents in south Tulsa. “That’s because there’s little access to fresh and healthful foods.”
Dr. Felecia Froe is with EcoAlliance Group - the organization that will operate the new Oasis Fresh Market in north Tulsa, which broke ground in July. It’s being paid for using private equity funds, government funds that are available that have not been used in that area, and cutting costs by using local growers.
Froe said, “If you do not have (fresh food), you are much more likely to have chronic conditions caused by inflammation in your body, caused by not having the proper nutrition.” Froe said the new grocery store will be small but will have more than enough options for fresh food and another key component – education. EcoAlliance Group plans on having dietitians in the store and plans to educate staff on nutrition. It will help to guide families in the right direction.
Plohocky said, “If our children aren’t getting healthy food in these communities, it’s harder for them to learn. When you’re hungry, it affects behavioral problems, it affects mood.”
This is especially true for kids in rural areas, with even less access to fresh, healthy foods in grocery stores. According to the USDA, 84% of the counties with the highest percentage of children at risk for food insecurity are rural.
Susan Boyd, executive director of Afton Housing Authority, said the only options Afton residents have are the Dollar General and two convenience stores. That’s why Boyd keeps a stock in the small housing authority community building - with the help of donations from churches and food banks. Boyd said, “(The residents) know I always have food here because you may be at the end of the month and be short on things.”
She’s stocked with canned goods, non-perishable items, produce, and the biggest treasure of them all – chocolate milk. “Oh, let me tell you,” Boyd said, “I have always had milk, but when I gave them that the first day, I had kids that cried . . . These kids are always used to getting seconds; they never get the best thing.”
So, how do we make sure these kids do get the best thing? Boyd’s answer: “Hopefully, there will be a lot of people helping people. That’s my greatest thing.”
She’s talking about people like Plohocky who are helping to bridge the gap, along with initiatives like the new north Tulsa grocery store. Plohocky said, “I’m very excited for them. But that’s not the only solution. That store is going to support about a mile to a mile and a half radius. Luckily, they are on the BRT, so they will be able to get that bus transportation. It’s still leaves folks that live in northwest Tulsa without groceries, northeast Tulsa without groceries, west Tulsa, portions of east Tulsa. It’s a start, but we still need to do a better job of putting more stores in.”
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