Ethan Rex was an OK Policy spring intern. He is a sociology senior at the University of Tulsa and a research assistant with Women in Recovery, an alternative to incarceration for eligible women convicted of non-violent, drug-related offenses.

Earlier this year, Walmart announced the nationwide closure of 154 stores, causing concerns over how people will have access to groceries. Of the 154 nationwide closures, 6 stores have shut down in Oklahoma. In two cities where closures occurred, Luther and Okemah, residents now face the reality of living in a food desert.

These recent shutdowns echo a similar closure of a Walmart store in Tulsa in April 2015, which created a food desert spanning most of north Tulsa. The shutdown of that Walmart sparked local discussion about food security for low income residents. Food deserts have serious health and economic implications, and it is important to understand the problems caused by food deserts in order to form effective policy to combat them.

The term “food desert” is meant to describe an area without access to healthy and affordable food, but the best way to define that has been up for debate. One definition simply counts how many grocery stores are in a certain area, while others incorporate accessibility, affordability, and quality of food — if residents can’t get to a grocery store or buy anything of nutritional value at a store, then it poses the same problem as if the store wasn’t there to begin with. The USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas takes into account both access to stores and family income to map out food deserts.

Food deserts can develop in a few different ways. In high-density urban areas, limited access to land and high construction costs can push supermarkets to the suburbs or to the fringe of urban areas. This means limited access for those who live in the inner city, especially when they don’t have reliable transportation. Another common reason for a food desert to emerge is the difficulty of opening or maintaining a grocery store in rural areas with decreasing populations.

“Residents with limited access to healthy food often turn to “empty calorie” foods with high sugar and fat content. Reliance on this kind of food can lead to obesity and diabetes, health problems that are already at dramatically high rates in our state.”

Smaller grocers can alleviate food desert problems and face fewer barriers to development. However, supermarkets tend to provide more high quality food options at lower costs than other kinds of grocery stores.

Food deserts have dramatic health consequences. A study of Massachusetts adults found a 10.7 percent decrease to the risk of obesity in zip codes with one or more supermarkets. Residents with limited access to healthy food often turn to “empty calorie” foods with high sugar and fat content. Reliance on this kind of food can lead to obesity and diabetes, health problems that are already at dramatically high rates in our state. Oklahoma adults consume an average of 1.67 servings of vegetables in a normal day (46th in the nation), which is under the national median of 1.9 and well below the recommended 3 servings per day. With better access to healthy food, Oklahomans could include more vegetables into their diets and enjoy the health benefits they provide.

The USDA identifies several census tracts in Oklahoma as food deserts. Rural food deserts are more frequent in southeastern Oklahoma, while urban food deserts compromise most of northern Tulsa and southern and eastern Oklahoma City. Overall, food desert conditions can be found in 32 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties.

food-deserts

Oklahoma has a slew of policy options to combat food deserts. Programs that place healthy foods in convenience stores ease access concerns associated with food deserts. Tulsa has started a food-truck program that brings affordable, healthy groceries to food deserts. Although startup costs can be an imposing barrier for these type of non-profit or small business programs, Community Development Block Grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development can alleviate initial costs. A statewide program in Pennsylvania called the Fresh Food Financing Initiative incentivized the building of grocery stores in both urban and rural areas with limited food access. A total of 88 projects were financed through this private-public partnership. Oklahoma could offer a similar program to bring grocery stores to its food desert areas.

Grocery stores are only part of the solution, however. Educational programs and healthy eating campaigns that raise awareness of healthy eating habits are important for increasing healthy food purchases. Consumer education through healthy shopping and cooking programs by the Oklahoma Department of Health would encourage healthier practices that would increase demand for nutritious, affordable food. Oklahoma has an obligation to ensure fundamental access to healthy food for all Oklahomans. By employing these programs, Oklahoma can combat food deserts and improve our health as a state.