According to the USDA, large swaths of North Tulsa are considered food deserts. Food deserts are officially defined by the USDA as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.” In an urban area, anywhere more than one mile from a grocery store is considered a food desert.
In food deserts, people tend to be unable to access healthy food for a variety of reasons. Grocery stores are few and far between. In a city like Tulsa, which was built around cars and doesn’t have dependable public transportation, this is made even more difficult for those who cannot afford a car.
The sprawl of Tulsa also affects the tendency toward food deserts. Sprawl increases the chances that a grocery store will be farther away because stores need to cover a larger area of residential zones. In comparison to other cities with similar population sizes to Tulsa, we have a much smaller population density. This is good for people who don’t like their neighbors, but not so good for poor residents who do not have access to reliable transportation.
North Tulsa is defined by the city as everything above highway 244 within city limits. The city zoning for this area is primarily residential and industrial with a few small commercial zones. Many of the residential and industrial zones correspond to regions of North Tulsa that the USDA defines as food deserts.
In response to how city zoning could affect access to food, Lara Weber, Communications Officer for the City of Tulsa said that “There are commercially-zoned sites available in north Tulsa and there are many new zoning tools available that could make development even easier.”
In these areas, people are more likely to rely on things like fast food or convenience stores, which offer less healthy food at marked-up prices. Studies have suggested that those of lower socioeconomic status have 250 percent more exposure to fast food. Paradoxically, poor people in these areas spend more of their money on worse food. This leads to higher levels of obesity and other nutritionally-linked negative health outcomes in lower-income areas where people have hindered access to food, as well as a continuation of the cycle of poverty. On average, people living in North Tulsa die fourteen years earlier than those living in South Tulsa.
Food deserts disproportionately affect mixed-race and nonwhite neighborhoods, with African American and Hispanic neighborhoods, like those in North Tulsa, being the worst affected. This is believed to be the result of redlining.
Redlining is the practice of corralling minority groups into undesirable parts of town by doing things such as manipulating prices and denying insurance or banking. The name is derived from the way banks drew red lines on city maps delineating areas where they would not invest. This practice was widespread in the postwar years, resulting in heavily racially segregated cities even in areas where segregation was illegal. While this is no longer practiced so widely or transparently, the effects still linger in places like Tulsa.
Dr. Travis Lowe, a TU sociology professor specializing in urban areas, said that “Tulsa is a particularly interesting example because this is a city that has organized itself around the automobile. In doing so it has basically made it so that people require a vehicle to go places. If you live in a food desert, your options for going somewhere besides a convenience store are very limited.” Many of the problems facing food deserts apply to North Tulsa. Convenience stores are common in lieu of grocery stores, and many who live there do not have access to a car.
Additionally, disability rates are high among North Tulsans who live in poverty. According to city-data.com, the disability rates of male and female residents of North Tulsa in poverty were 25.9 and 29.2 percent of the population, respectively. These numbers are disproportionately high compared to the rates throughout the state of Oklahoma at 17.1 and 21.5, respectively. When access to healthy food is difficult for residents without disabilities, it is even more difficult for those who do have disabilities.
One of the hurdles facing food deserts is free enterprise. It is simply not profitable to build a grocery store in a food desert due to low population density and the relative poverty of the area. “There has been a systemic disinvestment of that area based on a racial history,” Lowe commented. “It has been considered a very poor area where grocery stores wouldn’t make very much money.”
Furthermore, “When these things get put in the hands of private business, they are making decisions about where they are going to make money, and with no mitigating forces to encourage investment in these neighborhoods, then that history is just going to continue.”
Incentivizing businesses to come to Tulsa can be difficult. “One of the only tools that local government has is property tax breaks, but they need that money for the communities that are already afflicted with revenue problems,” said Lowe. Communities like North Tulsa are often reliant on improvements paid for by the city. However, the city needs tax revenue in order to pay for them.
Some of the other reasons that a business might avoid development in North Tulsa could be crime, access to utilities and road conditions. However, according to Weber, utilities and road conditions in North Tulsa are comparable to the rest of the city. A NewsOn6 report from July 2015 also stated that North Tulsa had the lowest crime rates in the city.
Announcing improvements in the works, Weber states that “the Vision Tulsa proposal does include projects in north Tulsa. These can be found on the City of Tulsa website under Our City, and Vision. The projects include Mohawk Sports Complex; Peoria Connection – N. Peoria Avenue, 56th Street to Mohawk Boulevard; Peoria-Mohawk Business Park; OSU-Tulsa; Langston University; Tulsa Zoo; and Gilcrease Museum.”
There are nonprofit organizations that help, but many of them are underfunded. Patronage from wealthy philanthropists helps as well, but as Lowe pointed out, this isn’t going to fix the problem for good. “Often in Tulsa we rely on the same wealthy families donating to stuff. At a certain point we need to do more collectively as a city to solve these sorts of problems.”
Currently, there are mobile grocery stores being operated in the area by the Healthy Community Store Initiative. However, this is a temporary solution to a very old problem.
In order to see the maps of USDA defined food deserts you can go to http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/go-to-the-atlas.aspx