VALLEY BROOK — The nearest place to buy food in Valley Brook is the DT Food Mart, a convenience store near S Eastern and SE 59.
There’s a faded poster of a blonde woman wearing a bikini on the back wall of the store, and a single roll of generic toilet paper costs $1.29.
This gray stretch of SE 59 that makes up the main drag in Valley Brook is dotted with bars and strip clubs — but no grocery store.
Valley Brook Mayor Donna Davis, who has lived in the area for the past 30 years, said there’s no place in the town that would make an attractive location for a new grocery store.
Helping to lure a grocery store is not a priority for town officials — Valley Brook gets most of its tax revenues from the adult clubs in the area, as well as traffic tickets, Davis said.
“We just don’t have a lot of commercial areas here, and I think it’s very hard to make it with a mom-and-pop grocery store,” Davis said. “We get most of our taxes from the stripp-y bars and police fines.”
Valley Brook is what is known as a food desert, an area defined by the U.S. Agriculture Department with a high poverty rate where a large portion of the population lives one mile or farther from the nearest grocery store or supermarket.
Several parts of the Oklahoma City metro area fit the federal definition of a food desert, including parts of northeast Oklahoma City and much of the southeastern side of the metro area.
For many Valley Brook residents, DT is the only place within walking distance to buy a loaf of bread or gallon of milk, albeit at higher prices than most grocery stores.
The convenience store also accepts food stamps.
Along with a cooler case filled with soda and beer, there are a few aisles of grocery items, including white bread, cans of soup and chili.
A lone block of cheddar cheese, a couple of packages of hot dogs and bologna stock the dairy case, along with a few jugs of milk.
The only produce in the store are half a dozen yellow onions that are stored in a Mounds candy bar box.
Owner Tommy Le has run the convenience store for seven years, and he says that he knows that his store is the only place a lot of his customers can purchase food, but it’s just not economical for him to carry such items such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
“You have to have a cooler, and you have to sell a lot,” he said.
The problem of food deserts makes it even more of a challenge for low-income people in the metro area to gain access to healthy, affordable food, said Rodney Bivens, executive director for the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.
“It makes it that much more difficult for people to have an adequate diet, and it’s even more pronounced in Oklahoma City where I would say has less-than adequate public transportation,” Bivens said.
“If you cannot afford the food, just trying to carry it home would be really difficult.”
In Valley Brook, the nearest grocery store is Warehouse Market, two miles west on SE 59 on the other side of Interstate 35.
It’s a long trek for many Valley Brook residents who don’t have cars, said resident Serenity Domenico, who has lived in Valley Brook for about a year.
Domenico, who works at Joe’s Addiction coffee shop in Valley Brook, said she frequently gives rides to people in her neighborhood to the grocery store.
Joe’s hands out fresh produce, donated baked goods and other food items to Valley Brook residents at its “Free Store” next to the coffee shop.
“A lot of people walk from here two miles to the grocery store. It’s a challenge every day to live here,” Domenico said.
About 30 percent of Valley Brook’s population lives below the federal poverty level, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The town recently got its first and only Embark bus stop — a solitary pole with no bench near SE 59 and Eastern.
Grocers follow the money, officials say
One of the many reasons food deserts exist is that some areas are just not attractive locations for a grocer to open a store, said Kurt Foreman, executive vice president of economic development for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber.
Grocery stores typically have very narrow profit margins — as little as 1 or 2 percent, Foreman said.
Choosing the right street corner in a densely populated area with a high income level can mean the difference between a profitable store and losing money, Foreman said.
“Retailers are interested in where the dollars are,” Foreman said.
“It could be that an area is in decline and other retailers are leaving the area, or a food desert could be in an area that is just not at the top of the list where the buzz is happening.”
One way for cities to lure a grocery store into an underserved area is to offer incentives in the form of tax rebates or tax increment financing to a retailer, Foreman said.
Oklahoma City hopes to bring a new Uptown Grocery Co. store to Northeast Oklahoma City by offering Oklahoma City-based retailer Buy For Less a new tax increment financing to help offset the company’s development costs.
A 49,000-square-foot Uptown Grocery also will be the anchor tenant for the $30-million King’s Crossing development at NE 23 and Martin Luther King Avenue — the first new grocery store in the area in half a century.
The Kings Crossing Development would likely not be economically feasible for the company without the help of the tax increment financing from Oklahoma City, said Susan Binkowski, who runs Esperanza Real Estate, the real estate division of Buy For Less.
“It really did bolster our bravery to make the investment,” Binkowski said. “While the help from the city is crucial, this development is certainly not without risk and we are just betting on that community supporting it.”
Community garden oasis in Valley Brook
In Valley Brook, just behind the Joe’s Addiction coffee shop, store workers have planted a small community garden.
There are rows of tomato plants, sunflowers and fresh herbs.
Joe’s distributes the produce to Valley Brook residents.
It’s a peaceful patch of green space under a large shade tree in an area that is filled with parking lots and utility poles.
Joe’s employee Paulette Alexander oversees much of the garden work.
She also gives out recipes to the regulars at Joe’s, along with the fresh fruits and vegetables that the garden produces.
So many people in Valley Brook don’t do much cooking at home, Alexander said.
“A lot of people that live here don’t even know how to prepare fresh food; they’re used to opening a can of ravioli and calling it good,” she said.