More than 23 million Americans live in places where good food is relatively scarce and expensive. The dominant commercial models of the grocery business prefer suburbs to cities, and major retail chains to local grocers. Katie Plohocky is an entrepreneur from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who is building alternative supply chains to get healthy food to people surviving in “food deserts.” Her Healthy Community Store Initiative uses a variety of retail strategies, such as micro stores and mobile shops, plus a wholesale distribution system, to reinvent and reintroduce the neighborhood grocer. We asked her how she got started and how it all works.
Katie, what is a food desert and how did you realize that you lived in one?
It’s an area where good food is hard to find. In urban areas, if you’re more than a mile from a grocery store, that’s considered a food desert. Why? Because 17% of households have no vehicle and rely on public transport or friends for shopping. So residents shop at convenience stores, which are expensive and sell unhealthful foods. Or they shop infrequently and therefore miss out on fresh food. There are also rural food deserts. Walmart and big-box stores position themselves between towns and shut out business owners across a whole area. I believe that 33 counties in Oklahoma have no grocery store at all. People travel 50, 60 miles to get to groceries.
My partner had a tiny grocery store in a poor neighborhood of Tulsa. His biggest obstacle was sourcing good, affordable food. We thought we could just open a bigger store with access to the same wholesale distribution sources as the big players. But it turns out banks do not want to finance grocery stores, especially independently owned ones. This is when the idea for a mobile store came to us. As we surveyed the community, one lady told us it was easier to find a gun than an apple in her neighborhood. We knew that bringing access immediately was most important and we could figure out solutions to the barriers as we went along.
It seems unnatural for people to live far from their food. How has this happened?
In the 1950s and ‘60s we started seeing suburban flight in America; people left the downtowns and populated the suburbs. Big-box stores followed, starting a trend of wholesalers only supplying the big stores. Now the minimum order is $25,000 per week, on top of a $50,000 bond. North Tulsa has lost more than thirty small grocers.
So you needed new business models?
Yes. The mobile store came about as a stop-gap measure; a bandaid. The advantage of going mobile is that by moving around you get to know a place well. I have a real-estate background and watched sales by location. We could across the street or 600 feet away, and sales would triple. Another barrier to sustainability is produce is perishable, so we opened a commercial kitchen producing packaged meals with the surplus. This was great for those who had trouble cooking and it brought us even closer to the community. It also allowed us to glean food from farms that would otherwise go to waste.
Having a dedicated local distribution hub sounds like an important piece of the puzzle.
Yes. Not only does local distribution hubs streamline our service, but I’ve come to see that they can transform the whole system. During this pandemic, we’ve rented a warehouse and built a new kitchen. In one week we turned the warehouse into a hub for food distribution. We installed walk-in coolers, we installed pallet racks, and by the next week we had groceries out to families. We’re packing groceries for 900 families a week, in partnership with 15 churches.
And you work with the cultural aspects of food as well…
Food is a social activity and should be dignified. Take our mobile store—right now, we’re seeing record sales because people can’t get to the store. We play music at each stop that is culturally relevant to that community—Motown, funk, a waltz. Neighbors come out of their homes and they get to interact with other neighbors… at a six foot distance of course.
We also do cooking demos in apartment complexes. It’s intergenerational. The older folks can cook, while some younger people may know very little about food preparation. Some may think vegetables come from cans, not the ground. So there are educational components.
Customer service is a big part of that as well. Every single person who comes into the store should be treated like the only customer we have. This is the dignity part. And those relationships really are important to mental health and making human connections.
What kinds of opportunities exist for food entrepreneurs?
The opportunities are everywhere, producing or sourcing or connecting with local farms, value added processing, for example, and then of course reaching the customers. We are working on a toolkit to help others open small stores that we can supply and provide mentorship. On the retail side, we have a Double Up Food Bucks program that matches dollar for dollar any SNAP money spent on fruits and vegetables. It’s a great revenue stream for farmers and small grocers.
How do you advocate with local authorities?
To cities, it’s about local spending and growing the tax base—why should North Tulsa dollars all go to Walmart in another city? To the state, we argue on behalf of our local food system. Many products—take strawberries—they all go to Kansas, Arkansas, Texas for processing and distribution. Then they come back to us in a processed less healthy version. There is a health argument to make. Preventive care through good nutrition is cheaper for the state. In 2016, we worked to pass the Oklahoma Fresh Food Financing Act. In 2020, rules were finalized for a $500,000 appropriation for a revolving, low interest, loan fund available to people living in food deserts who are interested in starting nodes in the Healthy Community Store network. And now we can offer refrigeration through our food hub to small farmers, which helps a lot.
Katie Plohocky is an Ashoka Fellow. You can read more about her and her work here.