The only thing keeping the west Tulsa neighborhood around Eugene Field Elementary from being declared a food desert is The Harvest market.
Since 2009, the nonprofit has become the gathering spot for shoppers, kids waiting for the school bus, GED classes, cooking lessons, a community garden and the faithful. It started with a small store with affordable groceries and branched out to meet the needs of residents.
But, the state’s economic downturn has led The Harvest into some choppy waters.
The nonprofit’s annual budget is about $150,000, mostly from individual giving. Of the pledges to cover the budget, at least $30,000 — or 20 percent of the total — cannot be made because of unforeseen financial trouble by the donors. That’s just the amount so far, said the Rev. Daniel May, who is the director.
“The challenges in the oil industry in our state have had a direct impact on giving,” May said. “We are in a more challenging situation than in previous years.”
The model is set as the founder, Clark Millspaugh III, organized it in 2009. There are four store employees and May, who is a volunteer, one-person administration. He handles development, fundraising, human resources, volunteer coordination and all things in between. The nonprofit has about two months of padding in the budget.
“If nothing else comes in before then, we may be in a difficult situation,” May said. “At first, people weren’t sure about us, whether we would leave. As we have been here and built relationships, the community has changed. There is ownership and buy-in from them. We are finally there with that. We have people in the neighborhood thinking it is OK to stay and be part of this. They see that significant change is possible.”
‘A holistic approach’: The Harvest market was started after Millspaugh sought a way to make a direct impact on a struggling neighborhood. As a mentor at Eugene Field Elementary through the First United Methodist Church, he saw kids arriving hungry, and the principal mentioned that families had difficulty accessing food.
The former oilman purchased two buildings next to the school and renovated them into a nonprofit grocery. Global Gardens started the same year with a community garden between the store and school. He then brought along other partner services. He died in 2013 at age 59.
Before Millspaugh’s death, May had located his non-denominational church — called The Burgh (a 12th-century word for “community”) — next to the market at Millspaugh’s urging. The plan was always to have a faith-based nonprofit led by a pastor.
“We wanted to be in a high-poverty community with special needs we could help meet,” May said. “Once we moved here, everyone referred to it as the ‘church at the Harvest.’ So, we changed the name to The Harvest Community Church ... We believe the body of Christ is very diverse and want a diverse community.”
At the center of everything is the market. Even church services are held in the store, with shelves rolled away and chairs put out.
“You might be sitting in the dairy section for church,” he said. “It’s a great church, very authentic, very unique.”
Without the store, the area would meet the definition of a food desert because it is an urban area with the nearest grocer located about 4 miles away. By public transportation, it can take up to 2 hours for a person to obtain food at that location.
It is stocked with items purchased at discount stores located across the city and resold at a 10 percent markup. That increase helps cover the salary cost of employees, who are residents of the neighborhood. The jobs start at $8.50 an hour. Currently, the employees earn between $9 to $10 an hour.
“We operate at a loss every month, but the rest is covered by donations,” May said.
Job opportunities are not plentiful in the neighborhood, making these coveted positions.
“A lot of folks around here don’t have a long work history, or their work history isn’t good or they don’t understand what it means to be a good employee,” May said. “We have mentors who work with them on having strong job skills and on personal budgets. Now that there is money coming in, what do you do with that money?”
The store hosts lessons in cooking from Junior League of Tulsa volunteers and has an area for children to play while parents shop. The school bus stops for junior and high schools are located in front.
The Union GED program holds classes on site. Of the residents who signed up for the GED program last year, 83 percent graduated.
Through this, May noticed the type of food being purchased has changed.
“We have seen people grow in the their understanding of nutrition and how that impacts their lives, not only physically but mentally and emotionally as well,” May said. “Our aim is to have a holistic approach. We are not relief workers, but development workers. We help people elevate their lives and that impacts their families and community.”
‘Relationships last with us’: In spite of the financial worries, a celebration is going to take place on Sunday. Seven people will be baptized, marking the first baptisms of The Harvest Community Church.
That might not sound like many, but it is significant for a small church.
“Baptism is an expression of an internal transformation,” May said. “I wanted to make sure it’s a genuine profession and statement.”
While there is no pressure to be a member of the church, the congregation has grown from about 30 to 80 members. May said it is there if and when people need it.
“The biggest impact and value you can make is to say to someone, ‘I will be your friend and walk through this life with you,’” May said.
One of the lessons May has learned is that intervening in poverty has no simple solutions. It takes time to get to know the individuals and families who need help.
“This has helped me understand my own faith better. God is a God of relationships, not rules and regulations. He is a God of relationships to help everyone,” May said. “Life is messy and that’s OK. Relationships are things we can carry with us through life — not money, not things. Relationships last with us.”