As most Tulsa residents are now aware, Tulsa’s first Trader Joe’s just opened in Midtown.
The hubbub surrounding the opening was exceptional for Tulsa—I cannot recall a time I have ever seen so many people excited about a grocery store. Folks were counting down the days, posting on Facebook and Twitter and celebrating the grand opening (mostly by spending their money).
What was largely lost in all this ado was the much more important discussion: why are we not feeding North Tulsans?
Getting a Trader Joe’s certainly suggests that Tulsa is growing both economically and socially, to be competitive on a national scale. This is great news.
Like most Tulsans, I want to see this city thrive and grow. Tulsa’s growth is positive, and I am not here to debate this point.
What I am here to debate, however, is how we can celebrate this growth when so many Tulsans are food insecure.
How can we know the numbers of children who live in “food deserts”—areas with limited or no access to fresh foods—and still be so excited about getting yet another grocery store in Midtown?
How can we know that people in North and East Tulsa are suffering from hunger and malnutrition but still celebrate what is essentially a “vanity” grocery store?
When I say “vanity” grocery store, what I mean is that Trader Joe’s is in no way necessary to midtown. We do not need it.
It is a luxury. It is nice. It is not necessary.
What is necessary is ensuring that all Tulsans have access to enough food, and that that food is nutritious.
What is necessary is eliminating hunger and malnourishment due to lack of access.
What is necessary is talking about this issue in order to come to a consensus on how to address it.
The majority of North Tulsa residents are people of color. As we saw with the Flint water crisis, it is fine to ignore the health of people of color if it is not easy or financially beneficial to fix, so it is not particularly surprising that the city has made no effort to improve conditions in North Tulsa.
If you are not aware, Tulsa was the site of one of the biggest race massacres in this country’s history. The massacre occurred because a big ole’ group of white people decided to destroy “Black Wall Street.”
Had Black Wall Street not been destroyed, Tulsa would likely be a leading power nationally. It was incredibly successful and was good for all of Tulsa’s citizens, not just people of color.
But we burned it. We murdered people of color and burned everything to the ground. We took away this incredibly prosperous thing (because God forbid a community of color have anything good).
People of color were in a great position in Tulsa until the riots. We never made reparations that were anywhere near equal to the damage done (and also we never can, because how do you make reparations for murder?).
It is not fair to make the argument that Tulsa’s people of color in North Tulsa would have grocery stores if they “worked harder” or if North Tulsa did not have so much crime, or if it were not so impoverished, because it should not be so impoverished.
It is impoverished as a direct result of the actions of our white ancestors. It is impoverished because we refuse to admit that the race riot—the massacre, the murders, the arson, the loss of human life and property—deserves addressing or reparation.
In some sort of attempt to address this, Reconciliation Park was erected. This park has several statues focused on the massacre.
A small park with some statues does not even begin to make up for the massacre. It does not address systemic inequalities. it does not admit that Tulsa still has a serious segregation problem, and it does not do in any palpable way help disenfranchised people—even the ones who are disenfranchised because of the massacre.
Trader Joe’s is not the problem. I am not angry that we got a Trader Joe’s. I am actually pretty happy about it.
I am angry that we deny people of color and people living in poverty access to food. Trader Joe’s is not necessary, but protecting the health of all of Tulsa’s citizens absolutely, unequivocally, undeniably, is.
I am angry that when Trader Joe’s moved in, we only talked about how good it would be for Tulsa. We did not use the move as a catalyst to begin the hard work of unpacking Tulsa’s food deserts.
I am angry that we burned down Black Wall Street. I am angry that the ramifications of this massacre are still visible today, yet we have done nothing to create any substantial change.
I am furious that other Tulsans are not furious about this situation. I am furious that people are dying, too young and of preventable diseases related to food access, while we celebrate the opening of Trader Joe’s.
The Tulsa Health Department reports that deaths from diabetes, stroke, and heart disease all occur in North Tulsa with a prevalence that is, on average, double that of South Tulsa.
I am furious that 90 years after the massacre we still place so little value on the lives of people of color in North Tulsa that we can celebrate the arrival of Trader Joe’s in Midtown without talking about the entire community of people in Tulsa with no access to nutritious food.
If we are going to improve this situation, the first step is to start talking about it. We need to talk about Tulsa’s historical and modern disparities in access.
We need to talk about how we can band together as Tulsans to make this better. It is unacceptable that people are dying due to lack of access to nutrition.
We need to reevaluate our priorities. If we can get a Trader Joe’s in Midtown, then surely we are strong enough to bring nutritious food to North Tulsa.