In photos: the fight against food deserts in the US south – Financial Times

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On an unusually warm and sunny December afternoon in north Tulsa, Margaret Love pulls out green onions from a well-stocked vegetable bed in her back yard. The self-professed country girl and avid gardener says she will use it in her dinner that night.

“Food is freedom,” she asserts.

When Love moved to north Tulsa in 1960, from a small town about 40 miles south, the Oklahoman city was a bustling community filled with life, people and businesses.

“Coming in here in the ’60s, it was a different world,” recalls the 81-year-old retired social worker and academic. “Back in the ’60s we had restaurants and things right here at our hand, food stores and everything. Now we’re living in a food desert.”

Though the US is the world’s richest country, more than 18mn citizens live in “food deserts” — or “low-income and low-access census tracts” as the US Department of Agriculture terms them. These are areas where at least 500 people, or 33 per cent of the population, live more than one mile (urban areas) or 10 miles (rural areas) from the nearest big food store — a definition that covers some 19 per cent of Tulsa’s population.

Food deserts exacerbate food insecurity, whereby people lack access to sufficient nutritious food, and they contribute to poor diets and ill health in some of the US’s poorest communities — which, in many cases, are predominantly black. “It’s not that people . . . don’t want to do the right thing,” said Michelle Obama, then US First Lady, during a 2011 summit on the issue. “They just have to have access to the foods that they know will make their families healthier.”

Backed by both private and public funding — notably from the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, one of the Obama administration’s legacies — numerous schemes across the US are aiming to eliminate food deserts. But, as projects in Tulsa and in the state of Mississippi show, it takes a lot to overcome a problem that has deep historic roots.

A little over a century ago, Tulsa was the site of one of the worst outbreaks of racist mob violence in US history, when white rioters destroyed the thriving black neighbourhood of Greenwood, a district in the north of the city whose prosperity earned it the nickname “Black Wall Street”. The surviving residents rebuilt their houses and businesses but, in the 1970s, an interstate highway was built through the same district — a piece of discriminatory planning that further disrupted the community.

To many, the city has still not truly recovered from the repeated traumas inflicted on its black population. “The history of the city and the history of Greenwood are intrinsically connected,” says Brandon Oldham, senior programme officer at the George Kaiser Family Foundation, a local charity whose initiatives include efforts to develop new businesses in north Tulsa. “It’s not a scar that’s been healed. It’s a wound that, in some ways, is still being tended to.”

North Tulsa’s Greenwood district, the ‘Black Wall Street’, was the site of a race massacre in 1921. . . 
The Greenwood Rising museum in North Tulsa
. . . a history commemorated in the Greenwood Rising museum, which opened a century later

Vanessa Hall-Harper, a city councillor, likewise believes that the history of Greenwood is still being felt today — in the form of food deserts. These, she says, arise from a deliberate lack of investment in poorer communities of colour, and a proliferation of so-called dollar stores, which typically specialise in cheap, highly processed food rather than fresh produce.

“You will see the same thing in the same circumstances and situations in any city you go to,” Hall-Harper says. “It’s the American way.”

She is particularly concerned about the dollar stores — chains such as Dollar General, Family Dollar and Dollar Tree — which she thinks target poor black communities and contribute to poor public health. In 2017, the Tulsa Health Department found that a baby born in the predominately white and affluent south of the city could expect to live 12 years longer than a baby born in the north.

“Grocery stores don’t make a lot of money off of [fresh] produce,” Hall-Harper argues. “They make money off of those dry goods [like] those types of things in the centre aisles. Dollar stores can buy in quantities that are so massive that, if you are a single-owned local grocer, then they can just buy you out.”  

An outdoor shopping outlet in north Tulsa
Economic landscapes: an outdoor shopping outlet in north Tulsa . . . 
A mall in the more prosperous southern half of the city
. . . and a mall in the more prosperous southern half of the city

In 2018, she led a campaign that resulted in Tulsa becoming one of the first places in the US to limit their spread. What was, at first, a six-month moratorium on proposed new projects eventually became a city ordinance restricting dollar stores from opening within one square mile of one another.

Since then, other municipalities, especially in the south and midwest, have adopted similar measures. Campaigners cite not only the risk of food deserts but also the potential impact on independent local businesses and some chains’ poor record on workplace safety: since 2017, for example, Dollar General has attracted $15mn in fines from the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Map showing Tulsa in Oklahoma and Cleveland in Mississippi

Hall-Harper says that, while she understands why people shop in dollar stores, it is essential to ensure that there are healthier alternatives. “I get it because, at first, you’re just thinking about your pocket, you’re thinking about the economics for your family,” she says. “You don’t think about it as a community and the long-term negative impact [that] . . . it will have if you don’t have access to healthy food options.”

Before Tulsa passed its ordinance, Hall-Harper says she asked both Dollar General and Walmart to ensure that future stores in north Tulsa would be of a model that included fresh produce — but her requests were declined. 

Dollar General says that the restrictions on its expansion are misconceived. In a statement provided to the Financial Times, it said: “In a wide variety of communities, our neighbourhood general stores operate alongside local grocers and business owners to collectively meet customers’ needs. While we are not a grocery store, every Dollar General store offers components of a nutritious meal including canned and frozen vegetables, canned fruits, proteins, grains, dairy, and more.

A Dollar General store in North Tulsa
A Dollar General store in north Tulsa. The chain rejects claims that it contributes to poor diets, saying that its stores ‘operate alongside local grocers and business owners to collectively meet customers’ needs’

“We believe restrictive measures, like the one in Tulsa, take away options and affordability from communities, particularly in inflationary times, and force customers to travel farther and/or spend more to access basic household and food items.”

Dollar Tree, which also owns and operates Family Dollar, says its stores bring quality products at affordable prices to communities around the country.

“We often repurpose previously vacant retail space in neighbourhoods that have retail needs, keeping centers and other adjacent businesses open and serving communities, especially those that are underserved,” the company told the FT. “Our stores also bring economic development to communities we enter, by helping serve those who are otherwise limited in access to basic food items we provide.”

Some businesses are making a conscious effort to combat food deserts. In June 2021, a shop called Oasis Fresh Market opened in north Tulsa, the first new grocery selling fresh produce to open in the area for 14 years. The $5.5mn investment required came from both federal and local public funds and private sources.

“Oasis means refuge, safe place, shelter,” says Aaron Johnson, manager and owner. “It doesn’t matter where you live. We all deserve access, fresh and healthy access, and options. And so, now, for our community to be able to have options just like other communities, it means a lot.”

The staff at Oasis all live in north Tulsa, a hiring policy Johnson says is intended to provide a further boost to the community.

While Johnson says business is good, and the company has just had its first year of profit, he emphasises the challenges of being an independent operator. Because he cannot buy in the same quantities as big chains, it is harder, he says, to be cost-conscious for his customers. “The power of bulk buying is real,” he says. “Distribution is everything.”

Outside view of Oasis Fresh Market
Green revolution: Oasis was the first new grocery selling fresh produce to open in the area for 14 years. . .
Customers browse a display of fresh produce at Oasis
. . . and is, Johnson says, ‘standing strong’ despite the economic challenges of recent years

Grocery stores have also been hit hard by high inflation over the past few years. Larger chains can absorb some of the cost to hold down prices, but local independent groceries such as Oasis often cannot afford to.

Johnson is undaunted. “We’re doing the very best with what we have, [despite] the grocery space being such a volatile market right now,” he says. “We are standing strong, resiliently strong, in a time that we could easily fold.”

Not all of the challenges that Oasis is facing arise from market forces. Last year, state legislators raised questions about the governance of the company’s non-profit arm, whose mission is to provide financial support and other social services to the disadvantaged — with the result that Oasis missed out on $30mn of federal funding for three new stores. In December, Tulsa County, citing “material breaches” in the way money had been spent, demanded that the non-profit return some of the funding it had received.

Johnson admits that mistakes were made, and says he should have moved more slowly and sought outside advice. “A lot of the things we just did not know,” he says. “Not everything is in a textbook . . . It was a learning process.”

Efforts to overcome Tulsa’s food deserts are taking other forms, too. A few miles north-east of Oasis Fresh Market is a vertical farm run by Food On The Move, a non-profit whose mission is “mobilizing healthy and quality food into hard to reach and economically challenged areas of our community”.

Crops flourish in Food On The Move’s indoor farm in North Tulsa
Green shoots: non-profit Food On The Move runs an indoor farm in north Tulsa, with produce given away to locals

Founded in 2014, it runs monthly events where people can receive bags of fresh produce and meals from food vans, provides community gardens where people can grow their own vegetables, and oversees school programmes to teach children about healthy eating. The produce it grows on the vertical farm is given away locally.

Rusty Rowe, FOTM’s programme director, says organisations such as his cannot work in isolation: learning what others are doing to eradicate food insecurity can provide the basis for a mutually supportive ecosystem.

“You could do so much more in an ecosystem,” he says. “It’s synergy. Knowing what each person’s doing and being able to do it together creates more opportunities.”

Five hundred miles to the east of Tulsa, on a bright day in Cleveland, Mississippi, a group of teenagers and a few adults gather in a converted barn. As pecans from a nearby tree clang on the metal sheet roof, Valeria Hawkins and Chris Johnson, the chair and farm manager of the non-profit Delta Fresh Foods Initiative, prepare to host today’s workshop — getting the students settled, as the speaker sorts out the slideshow.

Over the next few hours, the students will learn about black food history and the importance of access to fresh, nutritious produce. “Our overarching theme is to engage the youth because of the history of working in the fields,” Hawkins says. “It’s that trauma that we’ve got to heal, and that’s part of the education process today. They are the future of our food security and we want them to be able to really understand it from a deeper level.”

Students attend a workshop on black food culture organised by the Delta Fresh Foods Initiative on its farm near Cleveland, Mississippi
Food for thought: students attend a workshop on black food culture organised by the DFFI. . .
A student writes answers to questions during the DFFI workshop
. . . an organisation whose ‘overarching theme’, Hawkins says, ‘is to engage the youth’

DFFI, which started in 2010 as an initiative to support small black farmers, defines its mission as “establishing sustainable, equitable community food systems in the Mississippi Delta”. Mississippi has one of the highest poverty rates of any US state, according to the Census Bureau, and more than 15 per cent of its population experiences food insecurity, far above the national average of about 10 per cent.

After working on rented land in Bolivar County, late last year DFFI received $124,000 in funding from a local hospital, which enabled it to buy a 13-acre farm in the same area. 

As well as workshops, DFFI runs a community garden, where students can get their hands dirty growing watermelon, sweetcorn, tomatoes and other crops, and earn $10 per hour for their work. On the new property, Johnson says the organisation will be partnering with eight schools, each of which will have a quarter of an acre, while the rest of the land will be used to grow crops for revenue. The group runs a mobile market to distribute its produce.

“We’re in the Delta, where opportunities can be limited, but we want to reimagine what they can look like, especially when it comes to food,” Hawkins says. “Your health is your wealth.”

Catarina Passidomo, professor at the University of Mississippi
Catarina Passidomo, a professor at the University of Mississippi, says the term ‘food apartheid’ better captures dietary inequalities in the US

At the University of Mississippi, in nearby Oxford, Catarina Passidomo, a professor who studies food systems, says that the problems that give rise to food deserts run deep in the US. She prefers the term “food apartheid”, to indicate that these areas are not natural, but are the product of human policies and decisions over many years.

“The region of the South was created based on the preservation of chattel slavery,” she says. “We can’t expect to address any kind of systemic problem without being honest about its origins.”

Decentralised, grassroots initiatives such as the DFFI offer a way forward, she thinks. “Rather than be overwhelmed by the immensity of the problems that are operating on a massive global scale, we can look to these kinds of spaces in the interstices where people are opting out of that system and creating something different.”

A DFFI student holds a leafy vegetable prior to replanting it
Growth opportunity: the DFFI encourages students to get their hands dirty cultivating crops, which it distributes via a mobile market

Yet she also cautions against knee-jerk condemnations of dollar stores. “I think it’s somewhat of a classist argument. These stores are providing a vital resource,” she says. “Another possible way to respond . . . is to create some kind of legal mechanism that requires them to serve fresh food.”

Hawkins at DFFI agrees that the pressures of food inflation and the cost of living make choosing where to shop difficult. “When you look at it from a general perspective, it’s helped to have a Dollar General,” she says. “You want to support mom-and-pop [independent] stores and every chance I get, I try. But it’s hard.”

Back in north Tulsa, Love contemplates what to make with her green onions. She bunches them up as she throws out meal ideas while reminiscing about old times in the neighbourhood.

More recently, she has been among those campaigning against dollar stores. Though she is ultimately optimistic about ending food security, she acknowledges that there are no easy solutions.

“It may not happen in my time,” says Love. “ But I’m going to keep pushing towards that change because, if you don’t do [anything], it’s not going to happen.”

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