Talia Foreman travels an hour to get milk.
The northeast Oklahoma City resident doesn’t have a car and lives in an area with limited access to healthy and affordable food. Foreman takes a $4 dollar bus ride to Walmart in Del City for groceries. She shops for herself and three children, so the burden of carrying four to six bags on a bus limits what she can buy.
“Even if I had a car, I mean, still it’d be out of the way,” said Foreman, 47, a server at Oceans and Shark Bar.
Northeast Oklahoma City has been a food desert for 25 years. In October, the city and Homeland Stores officials broke ground on a full-service grocery store for the community at NE 36th Street and Lincoln Boulevard. The store will offer fresh produce, baked goods, a butcher shop, prepared foods and a drive-thru pharmacy.
Another smaller grocery store was added to the Eastside as well. The store, called Market at Eastpoint, will be located at NE 23rd Street and Rhode Island Avenue. The store will be operated by Homeland and a non-profit called Restore OKC.
While community residents are excited to finally get a full-service grocery store, Homeland’s prices have left residents skeptical of the new development.
“Homeland is already high to me as a consumer. It’s already pricey,” Foreman said.
Milk, eggs and bread cost about three dollars more at Homeland than at Walmart. The median income for residents of this Eastside community is about half that of the rest of Oklahoma City.
According to a 2016 study done by the Lynn Institute, the area has rates of diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart attack and infant mortality higher than state and nation averages. The area has higher morbidity rates in every major disease than the rest of the state and a significantly lower life expectancy rate than the rest of Oklahoma County.
Last year, a Smart Saver grocery store at NE 23rd Street and North Martin Luther King Avenue closed. The only grocery store in the area is Otwell’s, a small family owned store in the area’s 73117 ZIP code. There are six “dollar stores,” however, in the area’s 73111 ZIP code alone, making it easier to get chips than fresh vegetables.
Dollar stores are spreading across the country, situating themselves in low-income areas. They have been criticized for intentionally placing multiple stores in low-income communities as a way of discouraging supermarkets from opening. They typically lack fresh produce and healthy food options. They sell snacks, drinks, canned foods and household supplies at a discount, and are able to do so because they are smaller stores with fewer employees.
Local officials in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Fort Worth have taken steps to limit the spread of dollar stores. Last year, Councilwoman Nikki Nice successfully lobbied the Oklahoma City council to place a six-month moratorium on the construction of more convenience stores in the 73111 zip code, unless it provides at least 500 square feet of floor space to selling fresh produce and meat. Multiple attempts to contact Nice were unsuccessful.
Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt and Cathy O’Connor, president and CEO of the Alliance for Economic Development, said that they have reached out to nearly every grocery store operator in the country and only Homeland accepted the city’s offer.
“I think all of this work, all of this political maneuvering to secure the support for public funding to supplement the private sector on this project, all of that has played a role and all of it mattered,” Holt said.
The city is committing $3.5 million dollars to the project through tax increment financing, an economic tool used to promote economic development by using property tax collected within an area to invest in its infrastructure and provide an incentive for private investment. The Eastside is one of Oklahoma City’s 13 tax increment financing districts.
The city’s development partner is Endeavor Corporation, a Milwaukee firm specializing in developing grocery stores, underserved markets and securing New Markets Tax Credits. O’Connor said that the city is working to finalize the tax credits issued through a federal program that incentivizes development in low-income communities by giving investors federal income tax credit.
O’Connor said that the city decided to locate Homeland next to a senior wellness center scheduled to open next year. The third of four fitness, recreation and social centers constructed through Oklahoma City’s MAPS 3 project, will be operated by Langston University, the only historically black university in the state.
“Both would help support the success of the other and really build, you know, hopefully a really special place for the community,” O’Connor said.
Homeland’s parent company, which operates 79 supermarkets in Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia and Texas. Its headquarters are located about 200 feet from the new Eastside store site. Marc Jones, president and CEO of Homeland, said many of its headquarters employees live in the community.
Jones said the new store will have about 100 employees, with both part time and full time positions. He said he expects most of those positions to be filled by Northeast Oklahoma City residents.
“One of our goals in adding a store is not just to serve the community to install groceries, but hire people and really be an integrated part of the community,” Jones said.
Homeland is an employee owned company, which Jones said he hopes appeals to people. Employee owned companies give workers stock in the company. Employees are all offered health insurance plans and union employees are offered pensions.
Wallace Johnson,71, said that while it is good that there will be a grocery store, he believes that Homeland’s prices are designed more to cater to customers working nearby at OU Health Sciences Center, the state Capitol and residents of new apartment complexes.
“The folks who are coming in every morning and going out every evening can order their groceries on their way in, pick them up on their way out,” Johnson said. “For the bulk of northeast Oklahoma City, there’s still a grocery desert.”
Holt acknowledged that the location will allow Homeland to serve those customers. “They have an expanded market there and I think it’s going to be successful as a result,” he said.
Camille Landry, owner of Nappy Roots Books, said she shares concerns about Homeland’s prices. A gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, and a loaf of white bread costs $9.17 dollars at Homeland in Northwest Oklahoma City. The same items cost $6.16 dollars at Walmart in Northwest Oklahoma City at Belle Isle Boulevard.
Still, Landry believes its arrival is a positive for the community.
“If I want a bell pepper and I look in my refrigerator and there isn’t one, as I’m prepping dinner, the closest bell pepper I can find is going to be four miles away. I mean, think about what that means,” Landry said. “I’m within literal view of the state Capitol. I can see the Devon Tower peeking over the horizon. I’m just a couple of miles from downtown, but I got to go four miles.”
Jones said the new store will offer prices lower than other Homelands, reflecting the income of the Eastside community. Specific pricing and product offerings will be decided next year, based on feedback from the community, he said.
While having access to a grocery store benefits a community, experts say bringing grocery stores into food deserts doesn’t change eating habits.
Dr. Jean-Pierre Dube, a professor in marketing at the University of Chicago, conducted research along with other scholars over food deserts. Dube said that the established idea is the absence of supermarkets creates poor eating habits.
However, based on a decade of data, Dube and his colleagues found that even when supermarkets enter a food desert, people still eat poorly.
“The good news is you put a supermarket in the food,” he said. “Desert means people do not have to travel as far. The bad news is it didn’t solve the problem that was supposed to be solved.”
Dube said that healthy eating education is important in creating nutritional equality, not just providing access to groceries.
“If we really want to get to the bottom of how do you change nutritional inequality, you start with kids, take people in their formative stages of their lives when you’re still forming a preference and you intervene then,” Dube said.
Supriya Sridhar is a Report for America corps member who covers race in Oklahoma and blight in northeast Oklahoma City. Call or text her at 405-979-0907 Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @Supriyasridhar_. DMs are always open.