Path Home Shows 2009 Show Archive October 2009 Show 0942 Food Deserts

Food Deserts

A food desert is an area where fresh food is simply unavailable. While inconvenient for some, for others, food deserts can contribute to everything from a neighborhood's decline to malnutrition and obesity. We focus on the growing phenomenon in Oklahoma and the work going on to turn the trend around.
Food Deserts

For Sale sign

For more information visit these links:

Food For Life
Kerr Center for Sustainability
Hunger in Oklahoma

Show Dates

Show 0942: Food Deserts

Air date: October 18, 2009



Rob:  Well it's called a food desert, an area whether rural or urban, where fresh food is simply unavailable.  While inconvenient for some, for others, food deserts can contribute to everything from a neighborhood's decline to malnutrition, and even obesity.  Today, we focus on a growing phenomenon in Oklahoma, and the work going on to turn that trend around.

Rob:  It's the end of the growing season in this neighborhood garden.

Russel Van Pragg:  It tastes real good, especially when they are fresh picked radishes, they are real hot.

Rob:  Russel and his brother Rueben have spent much of their summer picking vegetables they planted themselves.

Russel:  Instead of going to the store and buying the groceries, you can come out here and get it freshly picked.

Rob:  Made possible by a program called Food For Life.

Stephen Eberle:  We are doing this all over Tulsa area, it's behind schools, it's behind churches, it's in communities, neighborhoods.

Rob:  Stephen Eberle is the Project Coordinator.

Stephen:  Food For Life is a program that Indian Health Care applied for through a grant, three grants actually, it's called Food For Life.  We're using USDA money, CDC money, and tobacco settlement money, combined together for a three year program which were ending food deserts in many neighborhoods and also providing food security for many individuals.

Rob:  By helping families grow for their own table, Yolanda Von Pragg is Russel and Rueben's mother.

Yolanda:  It's less expensive and fresh fruits and vegetables are always better for you.

Rob:  And for many low income neighborhoods, hard to find.  These gardens are located in a food desert, an area that lacks convenient access to nutritious food.

Stephen:  A food desert is a neighborhood where there's literally no place to find real food, or whole food.  There are only convenience stores and fast food chains.  There is no place to buy a loaf of bread, milk, cheese, meats, dairy, and fresh vegetables, they literally don't exist.

Rob:  Now for many neighborhoods here in Tulsa, finding a local grocery store can be about a ten mile trip, not a huge problem if you're driving in a car, but if you're dependent upon public transportation, or on foot, it makes finding fresh food virtually impossible.

Rob:  Here in West Tulsa where windows are replaced with wood, grocery stores are all but non-existent.  The Blue Jackalope serves as a sort of food oasis in what was a food desert.

Scott:  I started observing people in the neighborhood who didn't have access to a supermarket.  We lost two major sized supermarkets within a ten minute walk from here, over the course of a couple of years.

Rob:  So Scott sparked his entrepreneurial spirit and started the Blue Jackelope, a neighborhood market that's an oasis of fresh food and warm fellowship.

Scott:  When I found out about a lot of my neighbors on food stamps existed off of going to convenience stores for their food source, it really kind of hit home.

Rob:  Scott's managed to turn his store into a one stop shop for this community.  And in addition to providing an array of essential groceries and local produce, it's also a deli, a coffee bar, and perhaps best of all, a central hub of social activity.

Scott:  They'll sit down at the table, it's a communal table, and they'll start conversations with people.  And then they will do informal networking, and that has gotten people who are under employed or unemployed in the neighborhood, day labor jobs.  More than anything it's just become a place where neighbors are meeting neighbors, whether within our community or across a broader scope of the city that we live in.

Rob:  A healthy corner store concept that could get a boost from the Oklahoma legislature.  Representative Seneca Scott is co-author of a bill he hopes will help encourage private business to open corner stores in food desert neighborhoods.

Rob:  Is this an issue who's time has come?

Seneca:  Well I think it is Rob, that's a really good question because we are seeing with obesity rates, and with diabetes, a strong connection between food options and our quality of our health in the state.

Rob:  What are you hoping to do this next legislative session?

Seneca:  Well, first off we're really looking at a study of how we can incentivise best grocery stores in Oklahoma that are healthy and accessible to both urban and rural populations.

Rob:  Because food deserts are not confined to just the inner city

(nats car or something)

Rob:  Of Oklahoma's seventy seven counties, almost half are considered food deserts.  All of these here in rural Oklahoma.  And of these counties, nine are considered severe food deserts, which means it takes about a ten mile trip to get to the local grocery store.

Doug Walton:  And many of our rural residents are elderly, and also lower income, and we have higher poverty in rural populations.

Rob:  Doug Walton is with the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture and showed members of a legislative interim study committee, that in many ways, rural Oklahoma has been hit the hardest.

Doug:  And transportation becomes a huge issue in rural counties as the distance from the store increases and so the options that are left are often convenience stores or very small grocer type stores that lack selection and also tend to have higher prices.

(nats of rural cars)

Rob:  And while long stretches of road are often to blame in rural areas, it's the simple lack of transportation that limits others in Oklahoma City.  Within the shadow of the state capitol, Kevin Johnson walks blocks, past closed food stores, to just pick up a bag of groceries.

Kevin:  They are really kind of spread out around here, there ain't too many around here so it's not very easy, you have to go a little ways or whatever.

Rob:  And when on foot that's not so easy.


Rob:  At the intersection of MLK and 23rd you can hear the vibrance of the neighborhood.  Hometown market is one of the last grocery stores in this area.  Inside the isles are bright, and the food is fresh.  Something store manager, Chris Carter, says has helped them succeed where others have not.

Chris:  We struggle hard and try hard to provide everything we can for a consumer that's looking for whatever product they may be looking for.  Yes, I think we have a great produce department.  I think we have the freshest produce that any money can buy, and we work hard to do that, very hard.

Rob:  Carter says while he's proud of the fresh produce his store offers, he understands why some smaller retailers have abandoned the healthier fare.

Doug:  Ultimately it's a customer's choice.  You could provide them nothing but healthy foods and that still doesn't mean they're going to buy it.

Stephen Eberle:  We are killing ourselves in Oklahoma on the dollar menu.  That's where we're eating.  Rich or poor, food stamps or not, we're eating processed food only and it's killing us.  We see children with type two diabetes that shouldn't have it at all, but they're obese.  They're eating nothing but processed foods, full of sugars and salts, and that's the dilemma.

Rob:  A dilemma that Eberle and others believe can be solved by one healthy corner store at a time.

Stephen:  Cause we're talking about people in a neighborhood that are young businessmen or had an idea, but don't know how to go about financing and really don't have a secure business plan to go about starting this corner store.  But they have a devotion and a mission to do it.  We're finding those people and giving them that assistance in funding and that assistance in a business plan.  It's a win win, as with many of our local kind of food initiatives, is where we have a lot of farmers in Oklahoma and we have some very thriving markets in mostly urban and suburban areas, and in some of our rural areas, but we also have people that lack access to good food, home grown or otherwise.  And so, connecting those dots...

Rob:  In addition to being a hub of community activity, Scott hopes his store will become a source of positive change for this area, and a place where local residents can gain good knowledge about good nutrition.

Scott:  I think that a store like this, with the hands on management, and the hands on approach, is a great vehicle for working on people's ideas about what food is.  What's nutritious, what's healthy, it's really validating for me I guess to see people who are coming in with food stamps using them for actual food items, rather than just snack goods.

Rob:  Bringing a healthy change to neighborhoods across the state.

Rob:  Later this month lawmakers will hold a full hearing on food deserts at our state capitol.  We'll also be following this issue and update you as things do develop.