Fresh food should be available to all
BY AUBRAE FILIPIAK
Friday, February 17, 2012
2/17/12 at 3:22 AM
"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." As the nation's attention continues (slowly, slowly) to turn toward their plates, Michael Pollan's edict for good eating pops up everywhere. It's a great catchphrase: succinct, clever, easy to remember.
And for the middle class, it's simple. Real food, and not what Pollan calls "edible food-like substances," is easy to come by if you have access to supermarkets, farmers markets and other sources of fresh food. But what about those consumers for whom food is a struggle?
According to a statement published by the Oklahoma Heath Equity Campaign, 32 of Oklahoma's 77 counties qualify as "food deserts," or areas in which at least 25 percent of the population lives 10 or more miles from the nearest supermarket. Of those, nine are classified as severe, meaning that the entire population of an area falls under those conditions. North and west Tulsa are food deserts.
For many north and west Tulsans, the choice is not between food and "edible food-like substances" but more simply between calories and death. Without grocery stores within walking distance and with a public transportation system that falls woefully short of meeting the community's needs, Tulsans in food deserts are left with meals comprised entirely of processed foods with limited nutritional value beyond the calories they contain.
This diet results in a myriad of health problems. A 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation study showed that northsiders die on average 14 years earlier than people in other parts of the city. Hypertension, diabetes and other diet-related illnesses abound, compounded by the fact that most low-income residents work in jobs without health benefits and live in areas bereft of ready access to health care.
The University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine is working on part of the problem. It's building the Wayman Tisdale Specialty Health Clinic, at 36th Street North and Hartford Avenue. The clinic's primary mission, according to OU-Tulsa, is to "work specifically to reduce preventable health disparities." But ultimately, beyond and before health care, what is needed is reliable access to fresh foods.
Why not a year-round farmers market in north Tulsa? As a joint venture between the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine, the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences and the city of Tulsa, not to mention the various other community organizations whose support and experience would make all the difference, it could not fail.
OSU currently operates a year-round farmers market at its Oklahoma City campus, which draws crowds each Saturday to buy fresh produce, dairy, meats, eggs and other groceries direct from Oklahoma producers. Surely it has the infrastructure in place to spearhead a similar market in Tulsa.
OU, as the School of Community Medicine in Tulsa, has a vested interest in the overall health and well-being of the community. How better to improve it than to improve access to healthful foods?
A campaign led by these two giants is sure to attract the support of myriad others with the shared goal of improving the community's health and expanding food access to all Tulsans.
The market I envision is one that combines food shopping and education. The schools could have stalls at which they educate shoppers on the impact of diet on overall health. There could be community health screening areas, programs to get kids excited about fruits and vegetables and information about cooking and preparing all the fresh foods shoppers are buying. Customers could use their SNAP benefits to purchase food, a la Cherry Street Farmers Market.
This is an opportunity to make a huge difference in the way a large group of Tulsans relates to food, to level the playing field in one area and to give the citizens of north Tulsa the chance to eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Let's adopt Pollan's message as the food mantra for all of Tulsa, class and income nonwithstanding.
Aubrae Filipiak is a Tulsa resident who is dedicated to sustainable food systems, supporting local farmers and producers and improving food stability for all Tulsans.
Aubrae Filipiak: Tulsans in food deserts are left with meals comprised entirely of processed foods with limited nutritional value.