Lawmakers study hunger problems

Nearly half of Oklahoma counties, 32 of the 77, are considered food urban/rural deserts where citizens have limited or no access to fresh food and produce.

One of those areas is North Tulsa and Sen. Kevin Matthews requested an interim study to find ways to help his district and others around the state through the use of urban gardens.

“Urban gardens are changing the face of agriculture worldwide.  Some have already been established around the state but we want to take these ideas and spread them statewide so that all Oklahomans have access to fresh produce, meats and other foods,” said Matthews, D-Tulsa.  “Urban gardens not only provide better access to fresh food, they also help create jobs, provide agriculture and business education for local youth, support local farmers and business owners, and improve the health of local citizens.”

A food desert is an area, usually low-income, in which many residents cannot easily get to supermarkets or large grocery stores that sell affordable, fresh food.  More specifically, rural food deserts are generally classified as counties where residents must drive more than ten miles to the nearest supermarket chain or supercenter. Urban food deserts are classified as having to drive more than one mile.  Nationwide, twenty percent of rural counties are considered food deserts.

The Senate Agriculture and Rural Development Committee first heard from Reggie Ivey with the Tulsa Health Department who pointed out that urban deserts are becoming more common because economics has forced the once-common local, small neighborhood grocery stores out of business in areas like North Tulsa.

Residents have been forced to depend on convenience stores or businesses like the Family Dollar for their groceries.  Stores like these do not offer fresh produce or meat so area residents eat over-processed, unhealthy foods high in carbohydrates, fat and sugar that lead to higher rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

He pointed out that of the five Zip codes with the highest rates of diabetes deaths in Tulsa County, two are located in North Tulsa.  Ivey also noted that these resulting health problems cost the health care industry, employers and the government $100 billion a year.

David Allen, founder of the Alive and Growing Project, discussed the success of Growing Power, an urban farm started in Milwaukee (an urban food desert) by former professional basketball player, Will Allen.  The organization is transforming the production and delivery of healthy foods to under-served, urban populations by using vertical farming along with aquaponics to raise both fresh crops and fish in a self-sustaining system.

Growing Power also utilizes four million pounds of waste per year from local businesses to make compost for their plants creating community involvement and jobs while reducing the community’s carbon footprint and diverting waste from the local landfill. The produce, eggs, honey and other fresh foods produced at the facility is some of the only fresh produce in Milwaukee and it’s delivered to citizens in less than two days rather than the two weeks it normally takes for fresh goods to be trucked in from out of state.

Allen wants to duplicate the urban farm model in north Tulsa where Antioch Baptist Church has already donated land for the project.

Liz Waggoner, American Heart Association Senior Campaign Director for Voices for Healthy Kids, spoke about how her organization has been working with Oklahoma legislators to create the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a public/private partnership that will provide grants and loans to supermarkets, grocery stores and other fresh food retail projects in underserved communities.

Using this model, Pennsylvania has approved 88 stores, both in urban and rural areas.  A total of $190 million has been invested resulting in 5,000 jobs being created or retained.

The committee also heard from Effie Craven, state advocacy and public policy director for the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, who explained the role of the state’s two food banks in serving people in low food access areas.

She noted that more than 652,000 Oklahomans are “food insecure” or at risk of going hungry every day, and that the state’s two food banks provide enough food to feed more than 165,000 people each week.

Food bank clients who were surveyed said they preferred the fresh produce, fruit and meat provided by the food banks over salty and sweet snacks. For households experiencing food insecurity, fresh foods are often the first thing to go when money is tight because of their higher cost and shorter shelf-life. She emphasized that increasing access to healthier foods is a key priority for both of Oklahoma’s food banks.

Tulsa Community College Professor Dr. Sherry Lasky ended the meeting by discussing the positive economic impacts of urban gardens and how they not only provide fresh food for local residents and improve overall health but also create jobs, increase tax revenue and improve community morale.