Urban Farming

Could urban farming be an oasis in the Tulsa food desert?

Oklahoma is one of “the worlds largest” food insecure states in the US, where households struggle to buy enough health food. Locals are trying to ease poverty with community agriculture, but face impediment in a town with a complex ethnic history

As a young girl in Mississippi, Demalda Newsome once detected some sweet potatoes sprouting outside. Excited at her breakthrough, she presented them to her grandmother, who angrily ordered the root vegetables out of her house. People should devour things from the floor only out of poverty, her grandmother said.

Now as a 59 -year-old grandmother herself, Newsome still hears this view expressed as she works to combat food insecurity in the low-income neighbourhood of northern Tulsa, Oklahoma. The state ranks among the worst in the US for national fruit and vegetable uptake, and has one of the lower average national hourly wages: US $7.25( 5.53 ).

We launched different academy garden initiatives, but they just caused a ethnic subdivide, Newsome clarifies, while driving along a near-deserted north Tulsa avenue one recent sweltering morning. The black teachers didnt wishes to do it. Black females have moved away from gardening so much and, to them, it is just like delivering them back to slavery. I never felt like that. If you want something, if you want to eat better, you better feed yourself.

But feeding oneself can be complicated in this neighbourhood. Tulsa, a town of virtually 400,000, is considered one of the nations worst food deserts( homes with officially low access to supermarkets ). Only 7% of its tenants are said to be able to walk to a convenience store within five minutes.

Typical household incomes in north Tulsa hover at around $20,000, and plunge lowest in Turley, their home communities at the citys northernmost fringe. Its not uncommon for households here to struggle to purchase health or simply sufficient food at the one full-service convenience store left in all of northern Tulsa. Other people, unable to pay off former renters outstanding water or energy statutes, live their lives these fundamental amenities shut off so cannot cook.

Demalda Newsome on her farm in northern Tulsa. Photo: Amy Lieberman

The urban gardening tendency, having taken off in accordance with the arrangements of community and rooftop garden-varieties from Asia to Europe, is to be considered as a partial solution to US food insecurity by some experts. In belief, neighbourhood garden-varieties can help people with low incomes and limited or uncertain better access to healthful food gain reliable sources of produce. Yet in Tulsa and nearby Oklahoma City, gardening initiatives such as the Newsomes have a hard time overcoming the immediacy of people hunger, and the complex ethnic history and financial constraints that subdivide this south-midwestern state.

Newsome and her husband are long-time pioneers of black community farming in Tulsa. Their organisation, Newsome Community Farms, opened its farmers marketplace in 1999, employing 10 young people at a time with stipends to work on their five-acre farm. The Newsomes focus has always been on qualifying more gardeners and farmers, and Demalda still works with groupings of Hmong immigrant farmers. Community gardening activity at their farm has dwindled over the last three years, but they still plan to sell greens and honey at marketplace rates on their front garden this autumn.

Sharp ethnic divides in Tulsa, which tend to coincide with food deserts( as they do throughout the US ), extend beyond maps, Demalda Newsome mentions. The metropoli bequest is still charged by the Tulsa race riotings of 1921, which met an affluent black neighbourhood burned and approximately 300 people killed. Theres a lot of exchanges about the conversations here but theres no solving , no problem solving, she says.

Though she partners closely with two other Tulsa initiatives, Newsome mentions she determines few opportunities open to her as a black female. Racism is not out in the open. Nobody mentions, I am not giving you the money, I dont trust you with the money but then you encounter another region get the money that is white-run, and what else can you think?

Wounded hostages are taken to hospital in accordance with the Tulsa race riotings. Photo: Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

Newsome is of the opinion that there easier to tackle food insecurity at a national level she sits on several food organisations committees than locally, where it was wont address what is going on. She thinks this happens, in part, due to lack of grassroots community involvement in food insecurity forums.

Other black urban gardeners in Oklahoma share these beliefs of exclusion. Bryan Wright, a teacher, launched an urban gardening project in Oklahoma City last year after he realised he was the only black person at a sustainability conference.

Wright employs holistic, permaculture principles in his work with Bugs, the Black Urban Gardening Society( as distinct from the similarly called New York-based system ). On a recent red-hot day, only two households and one secondary school student braved the 38 C weather for a meeting, but 40 people have been known to attend, he says.

We have this story of forced agrarian task, so when I have kids out here the first thing they will say is, Man, we slaves, Wright mentions. They joke with it, but you have to reach the kids. We are dealing with major food insecurity, so having an store where were able to harvest food is extremely beneficial.


Despite its food deserts, Oklahoma was once a nationally competitive agriculture producer. Almost every native Oklahoman used to farm, or knows someone who did, mentions Ron Robinson, head of the Third Place community centre which runs a weekly food pantry and their home communities garden in Turley. Third Place planted the garden , now in its second time of product, after buying a row of dilapidated homes for $12,000 and razing them to the ground.

Turley garden run by Third Place community centre. Photo: Amy Lieberman

Turley tenants in the know can trek up to the garden with shopping carts to pick peaches or receive free breakfasts on weekends. But anxieties surrounding food predominate: according to a 2013 Oklahoma University analyze, more than half of customers at the Third Place food pantry displayed low food security and said they had suffered anxiety over having enough food to eat.

Most people used to have good food, and the older people will have that in their history, mentions Bonnie Ashing, a volunteer who runs the garden and is married to Robinson. But the younger people dont remember it at all.

Ashing mentions use of Third Places community garden is still beset with mistrusts and a lack of knowledge among its full potential users. People have shown horror: What if somebody picks my food? Dont you lock your garden? Or some people will want to pick the produce all at once, before it is ripe.

Claudette Schexnider, 54, recollects feeing sliced cucumbers and cherry tomatoes growing up on her familys farm outside Oklahoma City. Now, her food fund restriction her weekly buys to the basics, such as eggs and toast. She also receives free groceries once a month from the food pantry at Third Place.

After two heart attacks, Schexnider does not have the physical ability to consider gardening. She craves another convenience store that is cheaper and better quality than the only one in North Tulsa which are now stocks a small supplying of fresh food.

Urban farming is one part of many bigger issues like structural inequality, pollution, health issues, and investment in these communities, mentions Laura Lawson, dean of the role of agricultural products and urban programmes at Rutgers University. People can get involved in the community, and that is a really great thing, but it is not going to resolve the larger community questions that are shaping the food desert issue.

Bugs group in Oklahoma hopes to one day create an urban forest to supplying food throughout the year. Photo: Amy Lieberman

In Tulsa, health feeing is simply not part of the broad culture any more, while urban gardening is viewed as a little bit of a white tendency answer, according to Justin Pickard, administrator of Crossover Community Impact. This neighbourhood Christian community development organisation is planting fruit trees in the garden-varieties of Tulsa residents, and alongside a highway. They might demonstrate easier to retain than an urban farm.

Meanwhile Wright, the founding fathers of Bugs in Oklahoma City, is hoping to grow a perennial, year-round urban wood, so the community garden-varieties supplying is not limited to a few months each year. Regrettably, his organisation is operating in virtually no fund; a common situation in Oklahoma. The energy-rich commonwealth has a financially strapped commonwealth government, but Oklahomas Republican leadership impacts even organisations such as the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, which feeds 116,000 Oklahomans weekly but is under an obligation to forge its own route without any public support.

The[ commonwealth] government doesnt think its their official duties to help people, but there are a lot of good people doing good things, mentions Katie Plohocky, co-founder of the Tulsa-based mobile grocery R& G Family Grocers. Without that, we would be in big trouble.

Newsome mentions she and her husband are considering leaving Tulsa, perhaps for Philadelphia to be with her son, who is also involved in community gardening. I didnt believe it until I was there: “youve had” garden-varieties on every corner in low-income localities, and you dont start talking people into it. You have elders, young person, everyone only coming out.

By comparison, Newsome mentions she is worried for the future in Oklahoma particularly when band-aids to the wound, such as Ron Robinsons Third Place community centre, disappear. She and her husband are disappointed and disillusioned with the funding world they continue to confront. But for now at the least, the task still continues, and they take it day by day.

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