A health official told members of the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee that Oklahoma has a greater number of “food deserts” than the average state nationally.

Landon Norton of the Oklahoma Department of Health spoke at an interim study held today by state Reps. Seneca Scott and Jabar Shumate to determine how best to incentivize the rural and urban grocers that offer healthy, affordable, locally-grown produce and products.

Norton said a recent Centers for Disease Control report showed state healthy food retail policies positively impact its residents’ consumption of fruits and vegetables. The report found that Oklahoma had far fewer healthy food retailers than the national average and “food deserts” or areas with little access to healthy foods.

 “Access is not what it could be, not what it needs to be,” Norton said.

Representative Scott, D-Tulsa, said it is clear that encouraging healthy neighborhood grocers could trigger more Oklahomans to begin living healthier lifestyles.

“Oklahomans rank dead last nationally when it comes to nutrition and are the most likely Americans to suffer heart disease,” Scott, D-Tulsa, said. “Though lawmakers can’t force people to become healthy overnight, I think we can make healthy options available to them, while helping to support our local farmers and producers.”

Scott Smith who spoke during the study, owns the type of store Scott and Shumate want to encourage.

The Blue Jackalope Grocery Store is a small neighborhood grocer and coffee shop located in Tulsa’s Crosbie Heights neighborhood. Smith said the shop is attracting young blood to the neighborhood and further healthy community initiatives including a community garden, a bike repair cooperative and plans for both a “free” store and farmers’ market.

“The whole thing is the wonderful sense of connectedness that has resulted from what we’ve done at the store,” Smith said. “It’s almost like creating a community center.”

Smith’s grocery store serves as a good model for what Oklahoma wants to attract, Shumate, D-Tulsa, said.

“Oklahoma’s ‘food deserts’ need the type of store that will not only offer them access to fresh, affordable fruits and vegetables, but will also encourage other projects to promote healthy living,” Shumate said.

Incentivizing healthy grocers helps the economy, lowers health care costs and, most importantly, means Oklahomans won’t have to choose between convenience and health, Scott said.

One way to incentivize them could be to amend the state’s quality jobs act to benefit grocers, he said. The Oklahoma Healthy Corner Stores Initiative is the proposed title of the legislation he hopes to carry in the next legislative session.

“In too many areas of the state we lack access to affordable, high quality, fresh foods,” Scott said. “The Oklahoma Legislature needs to help these working families and at the same time help local growers and small businesses, making it a win-win for all Oklahomans.”