All the dirt, news, culture and commentary for Oklahoma's second century.

New bill helps OKC, organizations address unhealthy eating in OKC food deserts

Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report
Maggie and Katie Ridenour pull weeds from their garden bed.
Fertile Ground Compost Service
Help support Red Dirt Report

OKLAHOMA CITY – Jennifer Ridenour of northeast Oklahoma City and her four children grow their own vegetables, and sometimes the children eat all the cherry tomatoes they grow before they even get home.

The Ridenour family lives across the street from the Oklahoma City-County Health Department’s northeast campus and are among those who participate in the community garden. Last year, the Ridenours grew squash, cucumber, okra, cantelope, jalapeno peppers, tomatoes and strawberries, and Ridenour said her children love the garden and its bounty.

“I’ve never done a garden, so when this spot came up, we tried it,” she said. “It’s made a pretty big difference. We do eat pretty healthy usually, but the kids really like to eat the food that they grow. They have more respect for the work that goes into it as well.”

The Ridenour family is among those who have a plot at the community garden, which is one way the OCCHD is addressing the problem of food deserts in Oklahoma City’s northeast side. The lack of grocery stores and the low-income area mean that many citizens may not have easy access to healthy, fresh food.

While the Ridenour family eats healthy, many citizens in “food desert” areas do not. Low-income families who do not live close to grocery stores with fresh produce face nutritional choices that may lead to other health problems, like obesity or diabetes.

According to a policy statement by the Oklahoma Health Equity Campaign, “food deserts” exist in the majority of Oklahoma's 77 counties. The term "food deserts" means that at least 25 percent of the population lives 10 miles or more from a supermarket or supercenter and are in low-income areas.

Nine of those counties are "severe food deserts," meaning that the entire population has limited access to such food outlets – a real problem when transportation is limited.

While a majority of Oklahoma’s food desert counties are rural, and food deserts also occur within urban areas like northeast and south Oklahoma City and in west and north Tulsa.

These urban areas have limited number of grocery stores within two miles and instead offer convenient stores and liquor shops.

A new bill, however, is aimed at helping residents who reside in these food deserts.

The Oklahoma City County Health Department's Mobile Market, which will launch this fall. (Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report)

Senate Bill 749, signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin earlier this month, creates the Urban Gardens Grant Act, which creates a fund that is able to accept donations from individuals and businesses to address Oklahoma’s food deserts. The fund can also accept federal and state money.

To the agencies and organizations that work with food insecurity in Oklahoma’s most marginalized communities, the bill is a good move.

The Oklahoma City-County Health Department, for instance, is actively working in Oklahoma City’s low-income, health-endangered communities to raise awareness of the importance of physical activity and nutrition.

Part of that nutrition education is the importance of fresh, healthy foods and its availability.

“We work with 150 partner agencies. The way our coalition works is that we have seven work groups that focus on different healthy outcomes,” said Carrie Blumert, Wellness Now Coalition liaison. “We have a work group that is focused on physical activity and nutrition. In addition, we are starting a Mobile Market.”

Thanks to a donation of a 16-foot delivery truck from the Oklahoma Beverage Association that has been retrofitted into a mini-mobile grocery store, the CCHD is partnering with the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma to provide the mobile market to neighborhood food deserts.

“We’ve identified six zip codes that are food deserts,” said Blumert. “There’s a lot of different factors. Oklahoma City isn’t a very walkable city just yet, and if you have no access to transportation, it’s hard to get to the store each week.”

The zip codes of 73117, 73102, 73108, 73109, 73129 and 73149 are mostly located in the city’s northeast, east and south side of the cities.

Jennifer Ridenour and her children Maggie, Katie and Cody prepare their plot at the OCCHD community garden. (Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report)

The new Mobile Market, along with the CCHD’s community garden project, are a couple of ways organizations are trying to fill bellies with healthy foods in areas where nutritional choices are compromised.

The bill

Senate Bill 749 states that all monies in the Urban Gardens Grant Act fund are managed and administered by the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry. The State Board of Agriculture will oversee the application process for grants, and entities that receive grants must be located in food deserts and serve residents of the community in which they are located.

The applicants shall show that an awarded grant will expand and stimulate economic activity in the low-income areas served, as well as provide increased opportunities for the citizens of those low income areas to obtain healthier food options.

The law allows for a one-time grant up to $250,000 for organizations to purchase greenhouses and other materials to establish and operate an urban garden as well. These organizations are limited to nonprofit community organizations, churches, or other nonprofit organizations.

The urban gardens will grow healthy foods that are to be sold on site or at farmer’s markets, produce stands and retailers located within the same community.

This act shall become effective November 1, 2017.

The bill defines a food desert as an area where 500 persons or 33 percent of the  population live more than a one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas and 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store in rural areas.

“Food deserts lead to increases in obesity, which leads to other health concerns,” said Jennifer Like, supervisor of the free Total Wellness program offered through CCHD. “When people live in food deserts, they tend to go to the gas station to get food. Oftentimes, healthy and fresh food is more expensive, so if you are on a budget, you may not choose to buy these foods.”

The Mobile Market, which will be available through CCHD this fall, is modeled after a similar program in St. Louis, in which healthy and fresh food is sold at a subsidized rate through grants and funding from local businesses. In addition, the CCHD community garden located on the northeast campus allows residents to “rent” a garden plot for $20 a year to grow their own fruits and vegetables.

“The OSU Extension’s Master Gardeners come out and hold classes to teach people how to garden and they help with the community garden,” said Like. “We do a lot of education here too, like what produce is in season and how to use them. We will also provide education with our Mobile Market and provide recipes at farmers’ markets as well.”

Greening the desert

The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma provides enough food to feed more than 126,000 Oklahomans every week, 37 percent of whom are children, and Oklahoma consistently ranks among the hungriest states in America.

“What a lot of people don’t understand about food deserts is that it’s not just about distance, but also the income level. So, low access and low income equal a food desert,” said Effie Craven, state advocacy and public policy director for the Oklahoma Food Bank.

“Even if an area did have a grocery store, it may not be able to support a store in that area.”

The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma’s Fresh Rx initiative is a strategic effort to improve health outcomes for low-income, high-risk individuals by ensuring hungry Oklahomans have access to fresh, healthy food choices through programs like Fresh Food Mobile Market, Healthy Living Pantry Boxes for clients with chronic disease, Urban Harvest, Kids Cafe, Summer Feeding and more.

“I think the programs have a big impact on people’s lives,” Craven said. “When a family’s budget is affected, fresh produce and food is the first to go because it can be expensive and goes bad quickly. Unhealthy food leads to other health problems, so simply providing people with healthy food helps their overall health.”

Like the OCCHD Mobile Market, the Regional Food Bank’s Fresh Food Mobile Markets provide fresh produce in under-served areas and food deserts once per month in eight locations. The food is provided free.

“We set it up like a little farmer’s market,” Craven said. “The senior sites are very popular, because not only do seniors live on a fixed income, but they have more mobility problems as well.”

The Ridenours' garden from last year. (Photo provided)

There are currently seven FFMM sites, serving an average of 1,600 clients monthly, providing an average of 27.5 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables. Through this program last fiscal year, 547,472 pounds of fresh produce was distributed to clients.

“The mobile markets do help, but it’s not a solution,” Craven said. “We send out the trucks with fresh produce, meat and dairy mostly to the Oklahoma City metro area. We are not able to scale up right now to serve the state or even areas outside the metro.”

The Regional Food Bank also provides nutrition education, cooking demonstrations and health recipes through a full-time resident AmeriCorps member, whose primary focus is nutrition education.

Other programs are also geared to encourage families to eat healthier. For instance, the SNAP food assistance program doubles the value of the SNAP dollars at farmer’s markets, which Craven said helps not only families, but farmers who are selling their goods as well.

“[The Department of Human Services] also has a Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program. Low-income seniors can apply for a $50 card to spend at a farmers’ market,” said Craven.

“It’s hugely popular and they have a big waiting list.”

Enjoy this? Please share it!

About the Author

Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

read more

Enjoy this? Please share it!

About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

Member of the Oklahoma Press Association
Member of Investigative Reporters & Editors
Member of Diversity Business Association
Member of Uptown 23rd

Rotary Club of Bricktown OKC
Keep it Local OK