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Parts of Oklahoma get 'food desert' label

Southeast Oklahoma has the highest concentration of food deserts, communities without a grocery store where they can buy fresh fruits and vegetables, adding to the difficulties that residents face in trying to live healthier lifestyles, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: June 8, 2014

— 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.

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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