The Oklahoma City City Council passed a 180-day moratorium to combat what some council members have called a 'food desert' in the city’s northeast side. Journal Record reporter Molly Fleming discusses the city’s next step in making fresh meat and produce more accessible to the area's residents.
Katelyn Howard: This is The Business Intelligence Report, a weekly conversation about business news in Oklahoma. I'm Katelyn Howard, and with me is Journal Record reporter Molly Fleming. Some city council members have called northeast Oklahoma City a 'food desert,' which the United States Department of Agriculture defines as areas that lack "fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas." Many people in the city's northeast side are buying their groceries from convenience stores and national chains that typically don't sell fresh produce like the Family Dollar or Dollar Tree. In a recent article, you write that a 180-day moratorium was passed on constructing or issuing building permits for small-box discount or convenience stores within a mile of another small-box discount or convenience store. Can you tell us more about the goal of this moratorium and about food deserts in OKC?
Molly Fleming: Sure. Before I wrote about this, I drove around to see the situation. And so over in northeast Oklahoma City, you'll find a lot of people walking. There's convenience and gas stations that advertise groceries, and yet there's two grocery stores. Councilwoman Nikki Nice's goal with the moratorium is to space out convenience stores, and if they're going to be built, they have to carry fresh produce. The problem is a national study has shown that small box convenience stores like dollar stores can offer lower prices than grocery stores, and because of the lower return on investment, dollars stores also don't sell fresh produce. So while they offer lower prices, they also drive grocery stores out of business. This has already happened at 36th and Kelly where a closed Save-A-Lot sits next to the Dollar Tree. In the 180 days, Councilwoman Nice plans to work with city staff and her constituents on evaluating the situation.
Howard: You mentioned in the article that many people within northeast OKC shop at small convenience stores because they're in walking distance and their transportation options are limited.
Fleming: Right. In a study by the Lynn Institute, about 20 percent of participants said they mainly shop at a convenience store. Part of that reason is only about 40 percent of the people in the area either do not have a car or depend on the bus for transportation. A roundtrip bus ride to a grocery store can take time, and that's why it's easier to walk to the small convenience store. Walking isn't a new trendy thing over there, it's a way of life. So in the nine square miles, there are two full service grocery stores in the 73111 zip code. That's the one where the moratorium is in place right now. But there are also 27 convenience stores, so that's one grocery store every five miles or one convenience store every three miles.
Howard: And this is just the first step for Councilwoman Nice. When the moratorium is over, she wants to create what is being called a 'Healthy Neighborhood Overlay District' to provide northeast OKC with fresh meat and produce. What is this exactly?
Fleming: The overlay would require stores to have a certain amount of space dedicated to fresh produce, and they'd have to spread across the designated area code. Overlay districts also offer incentives for grocers by offering 50 percent reduction on the parking requirement, which ultimately saves the company money on land and utilities. Usually parking requirements are created by the size of the building, so larger box stores have to have a lot of parking. But with this and the overlay, that could reduce that amount. Mainly because a lot of people walk there, or they take the bus. This isn't a far out cry for some retailers though to add the produce. Dollar General has a fresh market concept which carries fresh items, and the company actually built one of its first fresh markets in Tishomingo.
Howard: And it's worth noting that this concept isn't anything new for the state since Tulsa did the same thing about a year ago.
Fleming: Yes. So, Tulsa City Councilwoman Vanessa Hall-Harper took on this challenge for a part of her district. North Tulsa is similar to northeast Oklahoma City. Both areas have a low life expectancy and high poverty rates. So, Vanessa Hall-Harper saw people walking a lot because there's a lack of transportation. She worked with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance on this idea and is now being consulted nationwide by other cities that want to do the same thing. She implemented the overlay in about 90 percent of her district, which has three neighborhoods. Katelyn, it's also worth noting though that this was a huge feat in Oklahoma because this overlay can limit the development of stores. And as you know, stores generate sales taxes for cities, and cities budgets are based solely on sales taxes in the state of Oklahoma. Vanessa had said she was grateful to have Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum support in this because sales taxes are so vital in Oklahoma's cities.
Howard: This summer, Tulsa will break ground on a grocery store and their overlay district. Does this mean this type of policy works?
Fleming: I wouldn't say yes yet. This store is being funded by a federal community development block grants and will have a local operator. So we haven't seen a national company work in this overlay yet. When new stores have been built in her district, they're outside the overlay.
Howard: Molly Fleming is a reporter for The Journal Record. Thanks for your time today, Molly.
Fleming: Thanks for having me.
Howard: For KGOU and The Business Intelligence Report, I'm Katelyn Howard.
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