Related Story: What’s being done to curb hunger in food deserts
Food Help: To find a food pantry in your area, visit http://okfoodbank.org/.
The quest for food begins before midnight.
In the quiet hour before the clock heralds a new day, Michelle Branch pauses with her cart at the frozen food section, her three children standing nearby.
“Want lasagna?” she asks.
Her sons — Jeremiah, 4, and Joshua, 12 — and daughter, Jordyn, 16, meet this question with wrinkled noses. Branch puts the lasagna back and pushes forward.
Her determined pace matches the progress of other shoppers. At this hour, most of the children sitting in carts are wearing their pajamas. A shared countdown to midnight drives the crowd closer to the registers. Midnight marks their first chance to buy groceries after their food-stamp cards are replenished.
Branch came from almost 10 miles away because there is no nearby place to buy fresh, affordable groceries. Most of the families moving through the busy aisles at the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market at 21st Street and Yale Avenue face similar situations. The barren areas around their homes are called food deserts.
For the 87,000 Tulsa County residents living in these deserts, getting food creates a ritual of struggle and worry, juggling rides and bus schedules while caring for babies and children.
Full cupboards, they say, are like a small miracle, and it’s a miracle they must somehow repeat over and over again.
At the stroke of midnight
It’s Aug. 4.
It’s the day before many individuals and families, including Branch, receive their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly known as food stamps. The night before these benefits become available, families flock to grocery stores.
Most of the shoppers time their trips to check out right at midnight. Sometimes, they say, the lines at Wal-Mart can be an hour long, an anomaly for any other day.
Shopping at midnight has become a norm for Branch, who was a nurse for 14 years. After health issues left her unable to work, SNAP benefits have helped feed her family for the past two years.
She threads through aisles as workers restock shelves. She keeps checking the time on her phone.
Usually, Branch leaves the kids at home. But her daughter works at a nearby store with a shift ending at 10:30 p.m. So, Branch picked her up before shopping, bringing along the boys.
Since 2011, Oklahoma has scheduled SNAP distribution to fall on three separate days — the first, the fifth and the 10th. Benefits used to go to every family on the first of the month.
For Branch, the fifth is the family’s day to buy groceries. The soft-spoken mother makes one monthly shopping trip, always in the final hours before the benefits appear on an electronic card.
The array of food stacked in Branch’s cart is meant for four weeks worth of breakfasts, lunches and dinners. By being smart with her meal planning, she can make it last through August.
“Sometimes, there’s even some left over,” she said.
On her way to check out, Branch walks past the hygiene and household products, items not allowed for purchase with benefits. She also avoids the hot foods at the deli.
“They only have to tell you once that something costs cash,” she said. “You remember.”
The Branch family makes it to the checkout line by 12:05 a.m. She spent $317.97 for the August groceries.
Many of the shoppers around her were displaced from the Wal-Mart Supercenter at Admiral Place and Memorial Drive, which closed April 27, reportedly for plumbing problems. That store sits in the middle of a food desert, stretching across north Tulsa, where Branch lives.
By the time the family drives home and puts food away, it’s 2 a.m. The late night was worth it.
When Branch and her children wake up, there will be options for breakfast.
Sperry morning: ‘It’s hard to ask for help’
Hours after the midnight shoppers have unpacked their purchases, a 90-year-old woman readies herself to get food in a town with no grocery store.
It’s 9 a.m. in Sperry, a rural community 20 miles north of Tulsa. Juanita Donaldson is dressed and waiting for her ride to Wal-Mart in Skiatook, the closest store to her home.
Her nails are painted. Her purse is already on the front porch. As she waits, Donaldson sits on her sofa and rails against using Wal-Mart’s motorized scooters.
“I hate those things,” she said. “I love to walk. I walk all the time.”
Some mornings, though, the Sperry native has trouble with her left knee and rues the day when her doctor recently advised her to give up driving.
“Makes me mad. I know how to do it, and I don’t use my left foot to drive,” she said.
To top it off, one of Donaldson’s grandchildren wrecked her car a few months ago. It’s an event her five children consider a godsend — it’s made it harder for their petite mother to sneak behind the wheel.
“My son said, ‘You don’t need a car, you’re 90 years old,’ and I said: ‘Just wait. Wait until you’re 90 and somebody tells you that,’ ” she said.
She never expected to live where a dearth of grocery stores would force her to depend on others.
When Donaldson was young, Sperry had at least three grocers. Over the years, businesses changed hands and closed until only the Sperry Market remained. Famed for its meat counter, the Sperry Market burned down in 2005. The owners never rebuilt.
For a while, the only food was at a gas station, and it hardly offered choices for many meals. Residents had to go to Skiatook, Turley or Owasso.
The town worked for years to attract another grocer. In April 2009, a Dollar General opened. Locals call it “the mall,” and many residents depend on the limited food items it sells.
Though the town lacks a grocery store, Sperry isn’t considered a food desert. Several grocery stores are located less than 10 miles away, which is the threshold distance for consideration as a rural food desert.
Sperry doesn’t offer public transportation, and many residents are unable to walk the distance, especially carrying sacks of food. So, residents must have a car or bum a ride from someone who does.
For aging residents like Donaldson, every trip is a reminder of limited mobility.
“It’s hard to ask for help,” said Donaldson, who has been a widow for decades and didn’t retire until a few years ago.
Now, her children take turns shuttling her to the store on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
For this mid-week trip, her daughter, Jonette Hayes, arrives. Hayes helps her from the couch and steadies her wobbly frame.
“It’s a dizzy day,” Donaldson said.
During the drive, the retiree reviews her grocery list, makes sure her light brown curls are in place and marvels at the Skiatook traffic.
“Look,” Donaldson points, “that’s Wal-Mart. Look at all the cars.”
Inside, Hayes manages to coax her mother into a wheelchair with a metal basket. Donaldson knows many of the other shoppers, including an elderly man next to the meat section.
“How are you?” Donaldson said, reaching out to take his hand.
“Just fine. You?”
“Oh, pretty old,” she smiles, “but still going.”
Her groceries — a tidy sampling of produce, bread, milk, lunch meat and paper products — total $71.07. Usually the bill is about $30, but Donaldson said her medication today made it more.
Once back home, her daughter helps her inside and unloads the groceries in the kitchen. It’s 11 a.m., too early for lunch, Donaldson said.
Without her car, she stays put. The day, she said, will be passed like any other. She’ll sit on the front porch and kill time by turning her chair toward the road to watch cars go by.
Evening bus riders: ‘It’s hell’
Jean Baker hurries to the bus stop a few minutes after 5 p.m., slowed down by the weight of her five plastic grocery sacks. She left her Sandy Park apartment two hours before to catch a bus to the Wal-Mart in Sand Springs.
Her home sits in a west Tulsa food desert. Without a car, Baker does her best to get food for her grandchildren. She rides the bus everywhere.
As she sits on a bench at the stop, balmy evening temperatures hover in the 90s.
“It’s hell — riding the bus and getting groceries,” said Baker, sweltering in her short-sleeved, OKC Thunder shirt.
She has to time her trips carefully. If she misses the bus leaving Wal-Mart at 5:17 p.m., she’ll have to wait until 6:17 p.m. for the next one. Buses only run on this route once an hour.
Baker shops at Wal-Mart in case she has to wait. The busiest routes in the city, bus drivers say, are the ones going to a Wal-Mart.
“It’s easier to kill time in Wal-Mart. There’s people-watching and air-conditioning,” she said.
Baker takes the bus several times each week for groceries. On each trip, she’s able to buy only as much as she can carry, even if she needs more.
Having scoliosis, she said, makes it hard to carry bulky bags. Tonight, she is alone, a respite from her full-time job of “raising grandbabies.”
Baker journeys to Wal-Mart for snacks and a few other items. She knows that Mikayla, 8, and Kyra, 3, will devour the honey buns and Chester’s Flamin’ Hot Fries sitting in her plastic bags.
The heat makes buying other treats impossible.
“I don’t even think about buying ice cream. It would melt before I get home,” she said.
The bus pulls in about 5:20 p.m., and Baker boards as she tries to balance her sacks on each forearm. Several others mount the steps behind her, also carrying groceries.
The ride home is quiet. Baker surrounds herself with her bags on the seat. At every stop, the bus lurches. Her grip tightens on her food, plastic crinkling.
“People don’t realize what it’s like to ride the bus because they’ve never had to do it,” Baker said. “The hardest thing is the time it takes.”
When the city bus finally eases to a stop near her apartment at 5:45 p.m., Baker is glad to be home. She already dreads the next bus trip.
Stocked shelves never last. Tomorrow, like clockwork, the hunt for daily bread begins anew.
About 87,000 residents in Tulsa County receive help from SNAP, also known as food stamps.
A household may qualify for SNAP if its gross monthly income is less than:
Household size Income
Each additional person: +$440
Hannah Covington 918-581-8455
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