Katie Plohocky has developed a framework for food security that proves that every community – no matter how economically disadvantaged – can engage neighbors (and others) and bring back fresh and healthy food stores. Not only does this improve local health outcomes, but when food security is positioned as an opportunity for community entrepreneurship and organizing in disenfranchised areas, it generates jobs, helps the environment, and enlivens the neighborhood.
The New Idea
Katie has developed a multi-faceted solution that brings community-responsive, economically-viable, and environmentally-friendly fresh food stores back to America’s “food deserts.” Based on her success in Tulsa, Oklahoma she proves that it’s possible to re-build a healthy food system large and robust enough to overcome deep economic and cultural forces that have shuttered thousands of small neighborhood groceries and left more than 20 million Americans living in “food deserts.”
Katie’s transformative framework tackles food insecurity through a combination of small format stores, community involvement and ownership, and robust back-end systems. Given her success, she’s proving that it is possible to engage communities and bring back local fresh food stores, so long as they are nimble, deeply-local, and networked together through regional food hubs, another of her innovations. It’s only in this way that revived neighborhood stores can compete with the current “big box” retailers and the cultural and economic forces that favor suburban Americans.
While her approach is competitive economically because it captures untapped value and unleashes entrepreneurial opportunities along the entire supply chain, it goes far beyond that. Katie is proving that engaged communities can reduce waste, have a positive environmental impact, and create on-ramps for other food system opportunities (like small-scale urban farms). On top of that, this approach improves nutrition, health outcomes, life expectancies, and dignity for people in disinvested neighborhoods. For these reasons Katie is already working with replicators in Kansas, Arkansas, and beyond; she’s finalizing roadmaps that other communities around the U.S. can follow and has already changed state (and influenced federal) policies to accelerate and support the adoption of this new and transformative approach.
Some 23.5 million Americans live in “food deserts,” geographic areas where access to affordable, healthy food options (like fresh fruits and vegetables) are limited or nonexistent. Americans of the lowest socioeconomic levels are nearly three times more likely to live in a food desert than the average American, and rates of diabetes in these areas are twice that of those areas with grocery stores.
The correlation between the lack of a grocery store and increased rates of diabetes and childhood obesity are so strong that researching and investing in solutions to food deserts is a key pillar of the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, as well as countless state and county public health initiatives. And yet, year-to-year, there are fewer grocery stores in the US. Most Americans used to get their food from small, neighborhood stores. According to Katie, just a few decades ago “there were 33 locally owned grocery stores in North Tulsa where now there are none.” Historically and culturally these stores didn’t just stock and sell fresh food, but supported an ecosystem of other local small business while offering opportunities for connection, physical activity, pride in place, and many of the other contributors to a “culture of health” that is so much more multi-faceted than just whether or not you’ve consumed 2,000 calories today.
Even with encouragement and the promise of tax breaks (like those proposed by the aforementioned White House Task Force), grocery stores have not been quick to return. So far the cultural and economic headwinds have proven to be too great. Katie notes that, “with the rise of the big box super stores and consolidation of wholesale food providers, small business owners have been put out of business. As the suburbs developed, people who could move out of our city centers did […] and the supermarkets followed this flight leaving the most vulnerable people behind.”
Food deserts, both urban and rural, don’t just lack grocery stores and access to fresh foods; decades of disinvestment means these neighborhoods also lack access to reliable transportation, affordable housing, healthcare, living-wage jobs, and quality schools. The lack of a grocery store is a symptom of the decay of other systems and the plight of the people who remain. So, while neighborhoods like North Tulsa can be called "food deserts," Katie points out that the bigger phenomenon is more aptly described as "food apartheid" because the forces that created this situation were not natural.
The conventional solutions to this entrenched challenge might also be described as “un-natural.” For example, it is common to address basic needs like housing, transportation, and food separately. In the name of efficiency, we provide public housing in high-rise buildings or subsidized elder care in facilities designed just around elders’ housing needs. But there’s no consideration for where these residents will get their food. When it comes to food, SNAP benefits to families in need often come in the form of vouchers, which address only the affordability issue of food (and when spent, support the food system status quo). But the accessibility issue isn’t addressed. The food bank system and school lunch program fill stomachs, but don’t necessarily prioritize offering the healthiest options and don’t value the dignity of the food insecure.
For all these reasons, 1 in 6 Americans is considered food insecure. This is tragic to Katie for two reasons. First, there is more than enough food in the U.S. for everyone to be well fed, and yet 40 million Americans struggle with hunger. And secondly, there are so many people who care about this issue: parents, grandparents, neighbors, and teachers, many of them directly affected by food insecurity. Yet rather than being engaged in the solution, they are treated as passive recipients of charity and not engaged as agents of change.
Katie proves that bringing fresh food stores back to the communities that lack them is not only possible, but that doing so can catalyze community engagement, support local entrepreneurship, and address the underlying issues that keep them out. Through the successful return of neighborhood food stores (albeit mobile and/or small) she's rallied unlikely allies, tapped local agency, and proven that the presence of local stores boosts local economies and health outcomes, bringing dignity to communities. Taken together, what she’s modeled is a proven and replicable framework for food security in former “food deserts.”
Arriving at this point was not a matter of drumming up demand; it's not that people don't want neighborhood stores with fresh options. Rather, Katie has had to deeply understand and then address the underlying systemic issues that pushed and have kept small food stores out. On paper these businesses simply don't work anymore. By understanding and overcoming the underlying forces, Katie has found a way forward and has developed a road map for other communities to follow.
Katie’s starting point was to rebuild ecosystem of supply and demand for neighborhood food stores. Under the umbrella of the non-profit Health Community Store Initiative, Katie has engaged hundreds of community members and thousands of customers in designing and deploying mobile and small-scale grocery stores. This began in earnest in 2013 when she launched “R&G Family Grocers,” a mobile grocery store in a retrofitted horse trailer that stocks 1,200 unique items, including fresh fruits and vegetables. By making 17 regular weekly stops in an area then served by no grocery stores, this mobile grocery has grown to serve 17,000 customers a year. The Healthy Community Store Initiative also manages a micro store of 200 square feet in a 150-unit low-income apartment complex that has turned over $10,000 in sales per month from it’s very first few months. In 2020, Katie will also launch a small, 1,800 square foot brick-and-mortar store. Once it is set up, running, and stabilized, the goal is to transition ownership from her non-profit to people in the neighborhood by converting it into a worker-owner cooperative.
While direct food costs are covered by revenue from customers (in dollars or SNAP benefits), Katie points out that it still costs her non-profit roughly $8 per year in additional overhead to serve each customer. These costs are covered sustainably through a combination of local foundation grants (40%), corporate sponsorship in the form of “adopting a stop” (40%), and earned income from catering and value-add products coming out of the Food Hub (20%), with the goal of eventually being able to wean off of foundation dollars by generating even more savings, value addition, and earned income at the Food Hub.
These figures don’t fully reflect, however, all the costs savings in this model represented by reducing food waste and engaging community members. Selling smoothies, for example, means aging fruit is never wasted. And because access to the particular apartment housing mentioned above is tied to the residents’ low and fixed incomes, being paid to take turns staffing the store could have jeopardized their subsidized housing. So, the natural response is also the most engaging: a system of signing up for volunteer shifts in exchange for vouchers. Taken together, these cost saving measures and dozens of others not only engage the community but also begin to compete with the business models of big box stores.
To some extent it doesn’t matter if the stores are non-profit volunteer led or worker cooperatives, nor whether they are “mobile,” “nano,” “micro,” or just plain small. The process by which the stores are launched is always the same, and that process in and of itself is game-changing. Communities are mobilized, asked what they care about, invited to share visions, and then pushed (with support) to make them a reality. Each stop of the mobile store is hosted by a Neighborhood Liaison who is in charge of everything from promotions, recruitment, to selecting the music playlist (which, from stop to stop, covers every genre imaginable!).
As soon as shops (or mobile stops) are launched, communities start to see funds returning. When you have no choice but to spend money elsewhere, it leaks out of communities. But local businesses help funds stay local. And local ownership keeps even more money into the local economy. Because more local revenue supports the local tax base, Katie has been able to make a compelling case to cities to step up as early supporters of new food stores, which can then also recoup some of the $1.5B in SNAP benefits dispersed in Oklahoma.
All that said, SNAP benefits and loyal local customers alone are not enough to help make small neighborhood shops financially viable these days. To compete with the big box stores, Katie and her team soon realized that a significant amount of behind-the-scenes infrastructure needed to be reimagined. (As our food system has consolidated, the stakes have increased; now to access wholesalers, for example, a store owner needs to have a minimum of $25,000 in weekly sales, one of the reasons so many individual food stores were shuttered in the first place.) A breakthrough in Katie’s model is the regional "food hub" that can buy and store wholesale products, transact with local farmers (in a way that current distributors can’t or won’t), add value, and manage logistics. Only in this way can the customer-facing shops remain small and in-the-community, while financially competing with the big box stores. The Healthy Community Store Initiative launched their first such food hub in 3,000 square feet of warehouse space in 2019 and calculates that just 5 hubs around Oklahoma could effectively serve future small stores in all the state’s current food deserts.
Food Hubs are key to helping leverage another competitive advantage of small, hands-on food stores: preventing waste and adding value. It is estimated that saving just 15% of the US’s food waste could cut food insecurity in half, and feed 25M people. And Food Hubs like Katie’s that include commercial kitchens can offer "food recovery" programs at a significant scale. These not only reduce waste but keep input costs low, in part by making it possible to collect and store steeply discounted farm produce like beans that won’t be harvested in time before a hard frost, or squash with imperfections that would otherwise get plowed back into the field. A labor shortage is a main reason farmers lose so much produce, but Health Community Store communities are organized communities. In the case of these beans and squash, Katie put out a quick call to mobilize labor to glean otherwise wasted farm produce and, in so doing, launched the “Hands to Harvest” program that is still active today.
The food system that Katie has launched works because it is community powered and because it marshals both supply and demand at a significant scale. This helps catalyze a whole set of other impacts, making urban agriculture more viable, which increases employment while decreasing foods’ carbon footprint by reducing the number of “food miles” travelled. Katie has developed a partnership with the University of Tulsa to develop recipes for dehydrated snacks made in her commercial kitchen with food that would otherwise be wasted. And, looking to the future, Katie sees even more opportunities coming online. Food waste can be collected to create compost, to then further help urban farms and school gardens, for example. And given that food system work is what Katie calls “entrepreneurial, self-starter work,” emerging industries like urban aquaponics – if linked to food hubs – could be a lucrative 21st century careers, especially for folks who otherwise face barriers to employment, like parents of young children or people with felony records.
Compared to hand-outs or food banks, Katie’s solution is designed to last. She’s unlocked public funding for entrepreneurs looking to start food stores that connect to the Food Hub and provides support and training for them, including on local ownership model. Through all this, Katie has already changed communities’ sense of what is possible and shown that tackling food insecurity in their neighborhood can be a force for a whole suite of positive changes.
Now, she believes, “we need to change how our local legislature perceives food access and why it is important to the health of the state but also the economy.” On this front, she worked to get the 2010 Healthy Corner Store Bill passed in Oklahoma, though it was never fully funded or realized. So, in 2016 she worked in coalition to pass the Oklahoma Fresh Food Financing Act. With funds appropriated and with matches through the Federal Fresh Food Financing Act, in 2020 there will be more than $1,000,0000 in a revolving, low interest, loan fund managed by the Department of Agriculture and available to people living in food deserts who are interested in starting franchise-like nodes in the Healthy Community Store network. By creating a way for local entrepreneurs to plug into the Food Hub, whether farmers selling in bulk or local aspiring shop owners, Katie’s framework is one that allows for depth of scale.
It is also designed to simultaneously scale widely. Katie is already working with partners in other areas in Oklahoma as well as in Arkansas, Kansas, and beyond. Networks of elder care facilities and healthcare campuses have also started asking for her to launch stores. Rather than replicate on a city-by-city, case-by-case basis, however, Katie is strategically focusing on influencing wider policy and unlocking public funds. She’s also working with university partners to create a turn-key toolkit that she can share. As more of the pieces fall into place, Katie can’t help but get excited about all the additional opportunities that will come online when multiple Food Hubs are networked and working together. While this is still 5 or so years into the future, it speaks to Katie’s vision and ambition: a reality where everyone everywhere has access to healthy food, and that the act of growing, selling, and even buying it can be a force for revitalizing our communities.
Katie has spent most of her life around food; she grew up on a farm in Michigan and worked for fifteen years in the restaurant industry. Yet throughout her life – as a kid and then as a working single parent - she has also been food insecure, not knowing exactly where her family’s next nutritious meal would come from.
Katie started her family young. She dropped out of high school in the 9th grade and ran away from home to travel the country. By age sixteen she was pregnant and married. By the time she was twenty-one she was divorced and single parenting her three girls. While working multiple jobs to make ends meet, she also secured her education. With a BA and then a Master’s Degree in business, she then spent nineteen years working in commercial real estate development. In 2008, while attending a meeting on behalf of her boss, she learned about a community-led economic development initiative in a predominately African American community in Tulsa. “This meeting changed my life. I quit my real estate job and became the volunteer chair of the retail committee and created a plan to build a new shopping center” anchored by local entrepreneurs. Based on the community’s input, they then incubated and launched ten businesses, each addressing an unmet need in the area. Today, nine of the ten local businesses are still in operation.
In many ways, Katie – now a grandmother of eight - sees her work with the Healthy Community Store Initiative as a continuation of this work and as a way to ensure no other mother experiences the anguish of not being able to provide food for young children. As Katie puts it, “by marrying my experience from commercial real estate and development with my own experiences with food insecurity and economic struggles, I have dedicated my life to creating innovative systemic change to address solutions for real change.”