March 16, 2023
For 14 years, residents of a northside neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, had little access to healthy food.
In 2009, an Albertson's grocery store that had been open less than two years announced its closure. The next nearest grocery store was three miles away, and community members say it lacked the quality and selection found in other parts of town.
Then, in 2021, an oasis in north Tulsa's food desert appeared. It took the form of a community-driven, full-service grocery store, opened in May of that year and led by the local nonprofit Tulsa Economic Development Corporation (TEDC) and Black entrepreneur Aaron Johnson.
Communities across the country are searching for solutions to the epidemic of food deserts and declining access to fresh food. Inflation and the effects of the pandemic have magnified and compounded the issue, and in 2021 nearly 33.8 million people lived in food-insecure households, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Like many communities with food deserts nationally, north Tulsa's residents are predominately Black with median incomes that are 36 percent less than the residents of the city as a whole. Poverty rates there approach 50 percent, and deaths from heart disease and diabetes are 30 percent higher, according to the Tulsa County Health Status Report.
Bringing quality food access and better food security to north Tulsa wasn't easy, and community leaders were well aware of previous attempts that had failed. But "TEDC and its partners layered and leveraged federal grant dollars while keeping community, equity, and inclusion at the core of its new grocery store," says TEDC's CEO Rose Washington-Jones. And so far, the benefits go far beyond food access.
Layering and leveraging capital
The lead agency in the Oasis project was TEDC, a U.S. Treasury–designated Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). The agency was able to attract a broad group of community leaders and funders that in turn assembled a strong capital stack to finance construction.
The $1.5 million Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to the organization catalyzed additional investment, ultimately upping the funding to nearly $5.5 million. Local foundations and philanthropic donors were more inclined to invest their dollars once they understood the city's commitments to the store and the community's willpower to advocate for such an important need, Washington-Jones adds, noting that the emphasis on health impacts and equity considerations in presentations to funders also proved influential.
The store's location added another opportunity to build on investment. The new Oasis Fresh Market was built on land TEDC already owned and had acquired as part of a CDBG-funded shopping center opened in 2015. (The site's location on a bus rapid transit line also maximizes accessibility.)
Two underlying planning documents prioritized these investments: the city's Capital Improvements Plan and the Housing and Urban Development Consolidated Plan. (And as the planner who managed both plans for eight years, I firmly believe that planners should be at the table and engaged in the development of these plans to ensure all community needs are represented. That is how these transformative developments come about.)
The organizations that now make up PartnerTulsa were key players. Before the city created PartnerTulsa in July 2021, the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, Tulsa Industrial Authority, Tulsa Parking Authority, and the Economic Development Commission each had a strong record of attracting and delivering large economic development projects that contribute significant tax dollars and have created hundreds of jobs. The reorganization into PartnerTulsa eliminates overlapping roles and focuses the city's mission of advancing equity across the community.
Now, the organization envisions leveraging its large-scale investments to create recurring revenue streams to reinvest in underserved neighborhoods. Executive Director Kian Kamas sees "the investments made as part of Oasis Fresh Market as an example of the place-based, neighborhood-level investment the agency hopes to foster across Tulsa."
More than food
The final necessary partner was someone to operate the store, and TEDC attracted a community-minded, passionate Black entrepreneur named Aaron Johnson for that role. He and TEDC then worked with community stakeholders to envision all that the new development could be, taking it beyond just a place to buy groceries.
Although providing fresh food to the 30,000 residents in the service area and improving health outcomes were key goals, Johnson's vision centers on Oasis Fresh Market being a community hub. The tandem nonprofit The Oasis Projects provides wraparound services to residents and uses the store's 1,000-square-foot community room to provide credit counseling, rental assistance, and mental health services programming.
Lessons and outcomes
TEDC put equity, inclusion, and the needs of the community at the core of the Oasis project, using a multipronged strategy to produce meaningful outcomes, including 20 new jobs for area residents.
Nabholz, the general construction contractor, committed to using Minority Business Enterprises (MBE) in the awarding of subcontracts, and even coordinated with the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce to identify potential Black-owned subcontractors. It also connected small and large contractors to foster partnerships and broke up bid packages into smaller units to allow for small contractor participation.
Those efforts led to the inclusion of 13 MBE subcontracts worth $465,000 representing 14.2 percent of the total subcontracts available for suppliers and professional trades. TEDC strengthened this strategy by providing patient capital through microloans to MBE subcontractors to purchase materials eliminating a major barrier to participation.
Oasis Fresh Market also maximizes customers' purchasing power by layering the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) with state programs such as Double Up, which matches fresh vegetable purchases dollar-for-dollar. The Oasis Projects goes one step further, with a donation-funded program that covers the "SNAP gap" — the gap between a resident's SNAP benefits and the actual cost of a basket of groceries.
Partners say that the north Tulsa Oasis project could be looked to as a replicable model for other communities seeking a road map to creating a community-centered grocery store.
"This is the blueprint for success in underserved communities," says store owner and operator Johnson.