Tuesday’s meeting of the City Council included an item from Ward 7 Councilwoman Nikki Nice seeking solutions to the lack of fresh food in Northeast Oklahoma City.
It resulted in a new ordinance proposal being introduced that could give the City more teeth in addressing Oklahoma City’s food desert on the east side.
The discussion also was the occasion for a rare display of emotion from the typically-composed Ward 7 council member, a sign of the severity of the problem.
With her leadership, the city council agreed May 7 to a 180-day moratorium on the opening of any more “small box stores” in the 73111 zip code.
Then, August 5, the only remaining grocery store in the zip code closed its doors. Free Press broke the story the week before.
See our coverage — “Only full-service grocery store on east side closing Monday”
The USDA defines a food desert as living a mile or more away from a grocery store if one does not have a car.
A study showed that over half of the estimated 5,000 residents in 73111 live more than one mile from a grocery store.
Nice said that the 73111 zip code has 22 restaurants that include mostly fast food options and 13 gas stations or convenience stores. There are zero grocery stores in the area, Nice emphasized.
She showed slides of photographs taken Monday in the neighborhood. Several photos showed the refrigerated sections of small box stores in the neighborhood.
The shelves were overwhelmingly empty of food, and what food was present was highly processed frozen food.
The lack of access to fresh and healthy food has striking negative impacts on health outcomes, said Nice.
She gave more sobering evidence of the impact of the food desert.
The 73111 zip code has the highest morbidity rate in every major disease compared to other Oklahomans. The life expectancy rate in the area is significantly lower when compared to anywhere else in the state.
Food deserts also have negative economic consequences.
“As grocery stores leave, so do other independent businesses,” said Nice. “Grocery stores employ significantly more people than the small box discount stores that usually only employ a staff of 8 or 9.”
One strategy Nice is employing to address the food desert issue in the 73111 zip code is to pursue a Healthy Neighborhood Overlay District.
Working with the Planning Department and the Municipal Counsel’s Office, Nice plans to change zoning codes in the zip code area such that new development will have restrictions preventing food retailing without devoting a predetermined number of square footage for fresh produce and proteins.
Municipal Counselor Kenneth Jordan pointed out that the underlying zoning and building codes will remain the same as they currently stand, but that the new codes will, as the name suggests, add another layer of requirements for some developments.
Nice added, “Again, this is only in the 73111 zip code, not the whole city.”
Tuesday’s agenda item was only the first step in this process.
The Council voted in favor of initiating a rezoning application. That application will next go to the City Planning for review and consideration.
If passed by the Planning Commission, the item will return to the Council for approval and implementation.
Some Good News
During the final round of comments from Council members, a very emotional Nice spoke about some changes coming to the Northeast side.
She said that after many difficult conversations, Homeland Food Stores has agreed to build a 30,000 square foot grocery store near the intersection NE 36th Street and Lincoln Boulevard.
See our coverage — “Homeland to build new full-service grocery store on the Eastside”
Nice said that the company will also build a 35,000 square foot headquarters in the area. This location is not in the 73111 zip code, Nice pointed out, but this will be helpful to many people who do not have access to a grocery store.
Toward the end of the discussion, other council members and the public also saw some of the emotion and frustration from the normally-composed Nice.
Through tears, Nice said, “You understand why I’m emotional. My community is suffering. My community is in need. It’s a shame that you have to beg people to bring you groceries. This is Oklahoma City in 2019.”
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