On a sweltering summer evening, Brandon, a 21-year-old culinary arts student at Workforce Oklahoma, sits beside his 8-year-old cousin, Sebastian, on a muggy Tulsa city bus. They are on a mission to buy groceries.
Brandon and Sebastian will ride nine miles from the bus stop at Pine and Greenwood to the Walmart at Admiral and Memorial, where many residents of North Tulsa buy food. He says that "lunch is dinner" for him, and today dinner was a chili cheese dog from Sonic. When I ask him how important nutrition and access to healthy food is to him, Brandon gravely answers, "Very important, ma'am."
Brandon suffers from Type 1 diabetes, a common chronic disease associated with food deserts — communities that have limited access to fresh, nutritious foods. The high rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity are like red flags, signaling the food disaster that has taken over north Tulsa.
Stretching from the Osage Hills to the beginning of North Tulsa at Pine and Peoria, the north side food desert is a serious problem for North Tulsa citizens, most of whom are low-income and live at least two miles from the nearest grocery store. Over the past few decades, grocery stores have left the area, leaving citizens with the difficult task of traveling long distances to reach healthy, affordable food.
With so few grocery stores in north Tulsa, many residents — especially those without safe, reliable transportation — resort to buying food products from convenience stores and gas stations. There are two markets in North Tulsa, but residents worry about the quality of meat and produce and are concerned that prices are higher in their neighborhood than in other areas of Tulsa. Public transportation doesn't make access to food much easier. It takes skill to navigate the Tulsa bus system's spotty route, which doesn't list all the designated stops. Those with vehicles usually drive to the supermarkets in Owasso or Sand Springs, giving rides to people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps or SNAP, who sometimes barter their stamps for a trip out to the grocery store.
What went wrong
What caused such a vast area of Tulsa to be barren of food? Residents readily point to perhaps the deepest root of the problem: the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Born and raised in North Tulsa, Precious Clardy, a family support case manager at Frost Elementary School, states that after the tragic events of that year, many of the area's professionals relocated to cities such as Chicago and New York, "where they wouldn't have to deal with such racism." Despite the construction of new shopping centers and the re-establishment of some businesses, efforts to rebuild the community and its economy have generally faltered.
Dr. Reverend Thames Clark, pastor of St. Peter's Baptist Church, agrees. He explains: "The race riots killed the progress of North Tulsa and it never came back. It's the reason why it's weak now."
From the low-sitting yellow sofa of his softly lit home near Gilcrease Hills, Clark, a 64-year-old man with small oval glasses, recalls a lively shopping area at Pine and Cincinnati that had a high-end meat market. "I really liked that area when I was a kid." He says that the center disappeared during the 1950s. More recently, North Tulsans remember the Northland Shopping Center at 36th & Hartford that had a grocery store and department stores such as J.C. Penney and Dillards. The center thrived as one of Tulsa's few shopping malls in the '50s and '60s, but eventually lost popularity, closing in the early '90s.
The Tulsa Race Riots devastated the area, but locals such as Clardy and Clark agree that Section 8 housing — a federal government program that assists low-income families by providing rent assistance in the private market — is what really brought North Tulsa to its knees. Homes on once-prosperous and prideful blocks began to fade away into unkempt and abandoned eyesores, leading to the deterioration of thriving neighborhoods. Driving through North Tulsa, Clardy points out Section 8 houses, showing how easy it is to tell which homes are a part of the government program. Clardy says that the introduction of Section 8 housing led to a loss of North Tulsa pride.
"Why would you paint your fence or plant a garden if you know you could be moving within a year? What's the point?" she explains. "When Section 8 moves in next door, your house loses its value, the whole neighborhood goes down, and slowly, it gets worse and worse."
Talking to people in the community, it becomes clear that North Tulsa's food scarcity and correlated health issues are directly linked to its loss of pride. And a loss of pride is reflected in the way something takes care of itself. Clark agrees, commenting that few families in the community have gardens like they did when he and his wife, Sylvia, were raising their children. "We used to have fruit from the ground. That's obsolete now — it's far and few in between." Clardy attributes a common mentality in families to unhealthy eating decisions. "There is a lot of laziness involved. Pre-cooked foods are so common now. I'm not sure that a mom would buy fresh food over ready-made food, because often times the older children will prepare the food for the younger children because mom isn't even home."
When lifestyles changed
Placing blame is useless in solving this problem. Michelle Jackson, who also works as a family support worker at Frost Elementary School, says that in the past, only one parent had to work to support a family, which usually left mom at home to cook for everyone. "Now both parents have to work, sometimes several jobs, just to make ends meet. Now there's no time for keeping a garden or even cooking. The economy is not set up for the family anymore."
Clark calls this phenomenon "The Convenience of Lifestyle Change" and says that the home took the worst blow as a result. "People don't take the time to do what they need to do. It's people's choice. We chose for my wife to stay at home. We chose that because of the value of life. That was a choice. It was a difficult choice. As a family we could have used an extra paycheck."
As a leader of the faith community in North Tulsa, Clark says, "The church has to be careful to not fall for the change the rest of the world falls for."
Clardy and Jackson feel that the religious community has already fallen, saying that corruption in the churches has made the faith community weaker. They are referring to the indictment that the Rev. Harold W. Jones of Full Gospel Church faces for misspending federal money intended to be used for community projects. Clark won't elaborate on any cases of dishonesty though and instead refers to this corruption as "a change in the style of worship" and believes that "We may have lost something in the contemporary church." He goes on to explain: "The church should be sacred. There are problems everywhere though, and I don't think that the church is holding back the community."
I ask Clark how he thinks North Tulsa's problems can be solved, what its future looks like. "North Tulsa is at a low standard right now," he answers. "We can't feed it negativity. Progress is coming back in a different way now, but maybe the way that we need. Our needs are coming before our wants. Of course we'd like to be flourishing, but we're getting what we really need. The Lord is answering our prayers, maybe not from the church, but from the individuals who are asking for it. The church is keeping the community in prayer."
How to fix it
The change that Clark speaks of comes in the form of new public health projects developing in North Tulsa. Bruce Dart, the director of the Tulsa Health Department, says there is currently a "huge lack of awareness" regarding public health issues in North Tulsa. He adds that "we haven't been drivers of the community health issues and now we're going to be." The Tulsa Health Department's new North Regional Health & Wellness Center, scheduled to open this year, will be a driving force of awareness to North Tulsa's health issues. The department's mission is clear:
The emphasis of the Tulsa Health Department's North Regional Health and Wellness Center will be on developing a culture of health and wellness within the neighborhoods and schools of Tulsa north by focusing on attitudes and behaviors responsible for 65 percent of health outcomes: diet, physical activity, and tobacco use. The Tulsa Health Department and its partners will provide job training, educational opportunities, primary care, preventive care and mental health services under one roof.
Another innovative project that has consistently been gaining attention is the Third Place Garden and Community Center that serves both Turley and North Tulsa. The Third Place is led by founders Bonnie Ashing and the Rev. Ron Robinson, both area locals. The community center provides a safe place for locals to enjoy a meal, use a computer with Internet access, or just take a break from the sweltering summer heat. Food supplies are also given away several times a week to those in need. The public garden consists of an orchard and small plots available to anyone in the area who'd like to grow their own food.
Taking pride in Tulsa
Back on the bus, Brandon imagines what it would be like with easier access to higher quality food. "I'd really like some farmers markets. That would be something cool. I think the community would be surprised that a lot of young people would be interested in going." With easier access to fresh food, I imagine Brandon could put fruit in Sebastian's oatmeal, his favorite food.
Teaching gardening skills in urban areas is a widely accepted method of educating populations about incorporating healthy foods into their diet. Unfortunately, North Tulsa district Rep. Jack Henderson has repeatedly bashed the idea as well as insulted his community's ethical responsibility, suggesting that North Tulsa residents would grow marijuana in the gardens instead of fresh produce. At a council committee meeting, Henderson is quoted as saying "How do we know what people are going to be growing? Vegetables? Maybe. Or, maybe something else. Is there going to be someone that inspects what is growing?" After the March 2009 meeting, he admitted to the Tulsa World that he was suggesting marijuana. North Tulsa needs grocery stores, not community gardens, according to Henderson.
Yes, North Tulsa needs grocery stores. But it also needs innovative thinking to turn things around. Education about healthy eating would seem like a great place to start. The youth should be considered a promising generation to initiate change. Jackson agrees that education could play a vital role in breaking the unhealthy eating in North Tulsa. However, she insists that there has to be both education and available resources to utilize what is learned. "You can't just be told what foods are healthy to eat. You have to have the resources to apply what you learn."
There is no easy place to start solving North Tulsa's food desert epidemic. There seem to be roadblocks everywhere. Sounding defeated, Jackson confesses, "Honestly, they've let it go now for so long that we don't know where to start." Who can put North Tulsa back on its own two feet?
Hopefully Clark is right — North Tulsa is not getting what it wants, but what it needs.
No one knows when grocery stores will come back to North Tulsa, or who will bring them. Questions of responsibility arise. But that's not an easy finger to point, says Clardy. "This shouldn't be a North-Tulsa-versus-the-rest-of-Tulsa issue. I want Tulsa to take pride in Tulsa. Period."