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Food ways

Change is (hopefully) coming to how we eat in Tulsa

Gateway Market Tulsa // Photo by Matt Cauthron

“I think we are almost there—near an inflection point, a jumping off place—to something very different and much better...”
  —Katie Plohocky, co-chair of Tulsa’s Food Security Council, on the changes in Tulsa’s food and grocery landscape

Ours is a city ominously packed with thousands of obese kids and unhealthy, dangerously overweight adults. It’s a place with few grocery spots north of the tracks, one of the largest of which announced its closing this summer.

But we seem to be on the cusp of a real transformation. Farming, grocery operations, and delivery services here are in flux. Imagine a town jammed with healthful foods, new minds and partnerships fueling farming and retail. Imagine a trans-racial, cross-town business and charitable confab that will spark a new era of health and food security
in Tulsa.

Many of us consume much more food than we need. And then there’s a small but fragile faction of Tulsans, many of them children or elderly, who face medically catastrophic consequences because they don’t get enough of the good stuff. Affordable, available fresh fruits, vegetables, and produce would make a marked difference in these Tulsans’ health trajectories, the kids’ school performance, and the overall quality of life for hundreds of thousands of young Oklahomans.

Tulsa’s problem, in part, is that big-box grocery stores and smaller, convenience-store style retail operations stocked with healthful foods are in short supply and not well distributed across Green Country. It’s complicated, but there’s a tight correlation between access to stores with affordable, high-quality produce and good health. Thousands of Tulsa kids, according to new data from the Tulsa Health Department and other studies, are limited to little more than fast food, highly processed junk food, and other foods known to contribute to obesity, cardiovascular disease, and other illnesses.

The tools: mobile food stores, community medicine, smart phones, geographic information systems, and savvy marketing campaigns, all designed to improve the quality of the food landscape for all.

Food security, or the availability of high-quality, affordable food, is part of the challenge of what food science and policy guru Oran Hesterman, who visited Tulsa last year, describes as the urgent need to reorganize our contemporary food production and delivery systems. Our food production and retail regimes need to be fair and affordable while tamping down the threats to our environment and our health spawned by how we consume and produce food today. Hesterman, whose national nonprofit Fair Food Network works to support farmers and increase access to healthful food in underserved communities, says local farmers and food producers must become a bigger part of the equation.

We need imagination and a more thoughtful approach to project design and execution, too, if we’re to improve food security and health statistics in Tulsa. Scott Smith and Katie Plohocky are Tulsa “foodie” pioneers. Right now they are driving a project designed to use food trucks—”on steroids,” they call them—to battle Tulsa’s food-desert problems in the northern and western parts of our city. These pacesetters aren’t alone. The Hansons—yes, those Hansons, including father Walker Hanson and his son, Taylor—have also joined the fight. They, like Scott, Plohocky, healthcare and food pro Russ Burkhart, academic and community medicine leaders like Dr. Gerald Clancy of OU-Tulsa, Tulsa’s Health Department, the folks at Morton Comprehensive Health Services, and teachers and researchers at Langston University each hope to team up and transform food and health equality in T-Town. The tools: mobile food stores, community medicine, smart phones, geographic information systems, and savvy marketing campaigns, all designed to improve the quality of the food landscape for all.

There’s more: Walker Hanson told me recently he’d like to work with Scott and Plohocky to craft a mobile-food strategy to help repopulate retail and commercial operations in north Tulsa and elsewhere. Interestingly, Antoine Harris of Alfresco Community Development Corporation has submitted a proposal to use city-owned sites in northern downtown to stage a new, mixed-use food and grocery enterprise with some of the same objectives. The Fintube area, the site of the Harris project, is an old industrial enclave just north and east of downtown proper. The Harris plan, still pending city approval and full funding, is an innovative project that would tie fresh food to an inventive mixed-use retail and residential housing project. 

The Scott/Plohocky mobile-grocery project offers to transform access to quality food in underserved areas of Tulsa. As Smith said at last year’s Food System Summit in Tulsa, hosted in part by the Tulsa Food Security Council, the project will also allow collection of all the data required to assail the prevailing nonsense associated with the economics of food consumption in north Tulsa, in the west, and elsewhere in town.

Nationally, part of this newfound interest in rethinking food availability and delivery stems from a giant project launched by the Border brothers in the early 2000s. Louis Border and his brother, of Borders Books fame, represented a business-and-operations research combo (Louis was a brilliant mathematician) like no other. The brothers launched an online grocery-delivery venture called Webvan, which began trial operations on the west coast. The project was to be powered by millions of quick-serve Internet grocery-delivery orders and the logistical magic that transformed their bookstore venture from a sleepy, one-store outfit into a global enterprise. But Webvan sank—it was an $800 million crash, one of the biggest dot-com failures. The come-down: the Internet then was too slow, and the Border brothers overextended, driven by their gigantic warehousing and dispatching systems—massive expenses that brought the venture to its knees in less than 36 months.

The project has been rekindled in the still new and widely watched Amazon-backed venture, AmazonFresh. The new outfit is run by a passel of Webvan veterans. FreshDirect and Peapod are similar ventures that have themselves sparked dozens of smaller-scale emulators, including two serious projects in Oklahoma—more about those in a future edition of The Tulsa Voice

The conversation about what’s for dinner continues. Though details aren’t in yet in place, Plohocky, who serves on the Tulsa Food Security Council, is already organizing another public summit on food and grocery service in Tulsa for sometime this fall. Generally, country-scale entrepreneurs and savvy investors, public policy experts, and a small but eclectic clutch of ag-venture pros are charging full ahead for “Ag 2.0,” a mix of urban agriculture and novel grocery and food outlets. There’s even talk about inner-city fish farms and vertical farming, an effort that could reposition our aging inner-city industrial and commercial districts into farming and crop-processing operations.

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