VALLIANT — So far, the calculator in Karen Dover’s left hand reads $42.24.
The family has about $20 left to spend on this month’s groceries for her 38-year-old son, Justin Fennell.
Fennell is disabled, unable to work after a car accident crushed his neck and almost killed him.
On this Monday afternoon, he and his mom are shopping at Pruett’s Food, the only large grocery store in Valliant, population 754.
It’s not easy to eat on a budget, especially when a majority is paid for by food stamps. Dover cares for her 15-year-old grandson with an income of about $500 a month and also helps Fennell with bills when she can.
“They don’t get very much money, and with his bills and everything, I always bring him shopping to help him try and stay on budget,” Dover said.
Without a grocery store with reasonable prices, Dover and her son would have to drive at least 20 miles to the nearest supermarket, spending money they don’t have on gas.
If it weren’t for Pruett’s, Valliant likely would be considered a food desert, a definition for urban neighborhoods and rural towns that don’t have ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A food desert’s impact
Southeast Oklahoma has the largest concentration of food deserts in the state, with large pieces of Le Flore, Pushmataha, Choctaw, Atoka, McCurtain and Coal counties lacking enough grocery stores for their residents.
It’s also one of the poorest regions of the state and has high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. About one in four adult residents is uninsured.
Not having a grocery store can contribute and further intensity some of those problems. Lack of access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, according to the USDA.
Doug Walton, who has studied food access in rural Oklahoma, said when a community lacks a grocery store, it often means residents are left to shop at a convenience store with pre-packaged meals with a higher calorie count and a low nutritional value.
“It's not the one thing that's making us sick or shortening our lives or making us obese — it's just yet another of many things that get in the way of good, healthy food choices,” Walton said.
By the numbers
A report published by the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture found that 9 percent of grocery stores in Oklahoma went out of business from 1992 to 1997. From then until 2002, urban Oklahoma counties gained 15 food retail stores, but the state as a whole lost 28 food stores, “overwhelmingly from less-populated counties,” according to the report.
“As smaller and more remote food stores close up shop, warehouse clubs and supercenters are taking their places. The number of these doubled during that same time period, from 26 in 1997 to 52 in 2002. Most of these are opening in the suburban fringes of Oklahoma’s largest urban centers,” according to the report.
The trend in Oklahoma has been for a few large retail chain stores to open in areas where consumers’ incomes are the highest, leaving the most affordable food to Oklahoma’s most affluent areas, according to the report.
Ray Pruett, a third-generation grocer, has taken a different approach to where he opens his grocery stores.
About six years ago, his company Pruett’s Food bought an empty grocery store that had sat closed in downtown Valliant for about six months. Before they came, residents had to drive about 20 miles for groceries, spending about an hour round-trip.
The produce department at Pruett’s is sprawling and has a large variety. For example, during the fall, the store offered 14 varieties of apples. During Thanksgiving, they had four kinds of sweet potatoes.
“You can’t hardly compete with these big stores selling cans of green beans,” Pruett said. “What people want, they want to buy the fresh stuff.”
Pruett’s are located in Oklahoma in Antlers, Broken Bow and Valliant, and then in DeQueen, Ark., and Naples, Texas.
These stores bring more than access to food, Pruett said.
“A grocery store adds a certain amount of identity for that community,” Pruett said. “We’re usually the folks who are sponsoring the school, .... we’re where we have car washes for the local community, where they have the bake sale set up here on Saturday and then ... where folks can buy food that’s healthy and nutritious for their family.”
Although Valliant is not a food desert, communities around it are. And not only are they food deserts, but certain portions of McCurtain, Pushmataha and Choctaw county have several households without vehicles.
It’s an issue Jeannie McMillin is more than familiar with.
McMillin helps coordinate transportation for residents in Hugo, Antlers, Broken Bow, Clayton and Idabel, communities that are either food deserts or are surrounded by areas that have the designation.
McMillin, transit director for Little Dixie Community Action Agency, said people who don’t have access to some form of transportation face numerous obstacles, including challenges with buying food at a grocery store and getting to a job on time and on a regular basis.
“I have often asked myself what would the people in our communities do if we weren't here,” she said.
Little Dixie buses pick people up within the city limits of the five cities they serve and then handle requests from outside the city limits when they can.
McMillin said her programs are facing the same issues as similar programs across the state — less money and more work to do.
“I think there are a lot of people who still have friends and hopefully family that can help them with that, but there are still probably going to be more cases than you or I would like to think about of folks who are cut off from services and have trouble with the basic issues of life, of obtaining food, ... paying bills and going to the doctor.”