On Your Health

Check back to the INTEGRIS On Your Health blog for the latest health and wellness information for all Oklahomans, published three times a week.

What is a Food Desert and How Does It Affect the Obesity Crisis in Oklahoma?

In the waning days of July, the last remaining grocery store in northeastern Oklahoma City closed its doors. The Smart Saver on the corner of NE 23rd and Martin Luther King Boulevard was the only supermarket in the community, and many relied on its proximity to find healthy and fresh food for their families.

"That’s going to be devastating to the community, I just don’t understand it," longtime customer Myra Myles told News Channel 4. "This neighborhood depends on this store."

In Oklahoma, it is estimated one in six people struggles with hunger. In addition, the fact that certain low-income communities are without ready access to healthy and affordable food options (such as fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods) creates additional challenges for Oklahomans experiencing food insecurity.

When disadvantaged areas are lacking in healthy food providers, they are often inhabited with local quickie marts that provide a wealth of processed, sugar, and fat-laden foods that are known contributors to Oklahoma’s obesity epidemic.

With the closing of that Smart Saver last month, the neighborhood in northeast OKC is living in something called a food desert. To qualify as a food desert, the USDA says at least 500 people, or 33 percent of the population, live more than one mile in urban areas (or 10 miles in rural areas) from the nearest supermarket or large grocery store. In layman’s terms, if you live in a city and do not have a supermarket selling fresh or raw produce within a mile of your home, you are living in a food desert.

How food options in Oklahoma impact hunger and obesity epidemics

According to a report by the Oklahoma Regional Food Bank, out of Oklahoma’s 77 counties, 54 contain food deserts and 76 contain areas of low access to large grocery stores.

But Pam Patty, a registered dietitian at INTEGRIS, says the issue of unhealthy eating goes beyond a lack of proximity to healthy foods. Poverty, a lack of education on the benefits of fresh food and how to prepare it, and a lack of transportation to shop for it are other factors explaining the obesity epidemic in Oklahoma.

"If you live close to a supermarket, but still can’t get to it, that’s a problem," she says. "Affordability is also an issue. You can have a high-end grocery store in your area, but if you can’t afford to shop there, then you’ve got a problem."

In addition, because many people in food deserts have grown up with highly-processed convenience foods, they may not have the knowledge or desire to make healthier choices.

"If all you have are stores that don’t have fresh or raw produce, then a situation is created in which people don’t see or experience fresh, healthy food and are unlikely to eat it because they aren’t familiar with it and don’t know how to cook it," says Patty.

Oklahoma City’s food desert

In Oklahoma City, the City Council had already taken steps to tackle low-access issues in OKC communities even before the closing of the Smart Saver.

In May, the Council passed an emergency moratorium on constructing or issuing building permits for small-box discount or convenience stores within a mile of another small-box discount or convenience store. Councilwoman Nikki Nice of Ward 7, who spearheaded the effort, said at the time that her goal was to space out convenience stores, and if they had to be built, they must carry fresh produce.

After the Smart Saver closed in July, the city and Councilwoman Nice partnered with the community on a new OKC Health Task Force to battle the northeast food desert crisis. EMBARK, OU Medicine and the YMCA of Greater Oklahoma City began operating two temporary, free shuttle services to the closest grocery store, which is the Walmart Neighborhood Market at 2217 NW 23rd St.

The EMBARK shuttles run every half hour from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. It departs from the former Smart Saver location at 2001 NE 23rd St.

The OU Medicine and YMCA shuttles operate from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekdays. They make continuous round trips and depart from the Ralph Ellison Library at 2000 NE 23rd St. To confirm schedules and locations, please visit neokcfood.com.

In addition, the Task Force collected food resource information for those who need access to free, healthy food immediately. That list is here

Great news for northeastern Oklahoma City

Just this week, the Homeland grocery store chain announced that it will build a new 30,000-square-foot grocery store in northeast OKC.

Homeland CEO and President Marc Jones said in a press release, "Homeland has worked closely with and received tremendous support from our City Council members, the mayor, chamber and economic development organizations to develop a plan that will meet the needs of our friends and neighbors who live in northeast Oklahoma City." Homeland hopes for a completion date in late 2020 or early 2021. The release also noted the company plans to build a new 35,000-square-foot corporate headquarters next to the new store.

Can the problems be solved?

While Homeland’s announcement is welcome news for the food desert in northeast OKC, the bigger issues involved in solving hunger, food deserts and obesity crises in Oklahoma remain complex challenges, says Patty. "There is no straightforward answer," she says. "Even if people do gain access, will they even want to eat fresh produce and healthy whole foods?"

Patty hopes that local gas stations and convenience stores will take notice of the recent turmoil and make fresh, nutritional food visible and available going forward. She wonders, "Can they veer from overly-processed foods and offer things like bananas at the checkout stand instead?"

Patty herself plans to continue engaging people with healthy food through her community wellness job at INTEGRIS. She regularly visits food banks and health fairs and offers food demonstrations to show people how to cook fresh foods. She says, "Give them samples and recipes featuring delicious fresh food! Food banks and health fairs are great places to do that because you have an opportunity to reach a captive audience."

Ultimately, Patty hopes the issues can be solved. "When you can create an environment and a culture where fresh food is available and easy, you can see that shift, says Patty.

Farmers Markets

Shopping at Oklahoma farmers markets is a great way to provide a family with affordable, locally grown, nutritious produce. Even better, some Oklahomans can stretch their food dollars at local farmers markets through a matching program.

The OSU-OKC Farmers Market (along with several other farmers markets in the state) is participating in a program that provides a financial incentive for Oklahoma families receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Participants with SNAP's "Access Oklahoma" card can have their dollars matched one-to-one for purchases of Oklahoma-grown fruits and vegetables. Up to $20 dollars of SNAP benefits per day can be matched for eligible purchases.

To sign up for the program, all a SNAP customer must do is go to the information booth at the farmers market before shopping. Once there, market staff can help them get started.

For more information on food insecurity, visit The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.

Subscribe to the INTEGRIS On Your Health blog

Subscribe for weekly emails full of useful and interesting Oklahoma-centric health and wellness info, from the doctors and health experts at INTEGRIS.