Listen to this article here

On July 12th, Federal Trade Commissioner Alvaro Bedoya paid a visit to Oasis Fresh Market, North Tulsa’s only full-service grocery story, seeking to gain insights into the progress and challenges in ensuring food accessibility.

The proliferation of predatory retail chains, such as Walmart, Kroger, and Dollar General, has inflicted significant harm on low-income communities. These corporate giants are often accused of leveraging their power to intimidate farmers and eliminate independent grocers, thereby undermining the integrity of the food system.

Consequently, numerous communities are left devoid of access to fresh, healthy food, leading to detrimental health impacts. In areas where dollar stores serve as the sole grocery option, community members lack access to nutritious food choices and struggle to maintain balanced meals.

Federal Trade Commissioner Alvara Bedoya speaks with North Tulsa leaders, including District 1 City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper (yellow shirt), at Oasis Fresh Market on Wednesday, July 12, 2023. (Photo by Midori Williams / The Black Wall Street Times)

Furthermore, smaller grocery stores frequently face challenges in competing with larger chain supermarkets, as they are unable to secure comparable prices and encounter difficulties in sustaining their operations while catering to the community’s needs.

A battle between healthy food and dollar stores

During Commissioner Bedoya’s visit to Oasis Fresh Market, the first Black-owned grocery story in North Tulsa in over 50 years, he engaged in discussions with prominent community figures who have been tirelessly working to address food insecurity issues.

One notable achievement was highlighted—Councilwoman Vanessa Hall-Harper’s efforts in shaping policies and implementing the Healthy Neighborhoods Overlay to curtail the proliferation of dollar stores in North Tulsa.

 In 2017, there were already 17 dollar stores in this district alone, surpassing the combined total in all other districts.

It was believed that the abundance of dollar stores and the absence of genuine grocery stores contributed to a significant life expectancy gap of 12.3 years between the citizens of North and South Tulsa. Hall-Harper remarked, “They clearly have a marketing strategy to proliferate in Black, brown, and poor communities.”

Since then, Councilwoman Hall-Harper, along with other community change-makers, has made substantial strides in bridging this gap through advocacy and the establishment of healthy food options like Oasis Fresh Market.

During Commissioner Bedoya’s visit, he also had the opportunity to speak with Aaron Johnson, the owner of Oasis Fresh Market, a Black-owned establishment that opened its doors in May 2021 as the first full-service grocery store in North Tulsa in over 14 years. Prior to its opening, the area was classified as a food desert. Johnson shared the challenges he has faced as an independent grocer, highlighting his inability to access the same prices as his competitors. 

This issue piqued Commissioner Bedoya’s interest, ultimately leading him and his team to visit Oasis. Commissioner Bedoya explained that it is unlawful for larger corporations to leverage their power and demand discounted prices from distributors. Recounting their conversation, he stated, “A.J. told me, you know that I’m running an independent grocery store and I go online to buy my product and I literally cannot access the same prices as my competitors…The way I read the law, you should be able to access the same deals and have the same ability to purchase products as your competitors.”

Federal Trade Commissioner seeks racial equity among urban grocery stores

Commissioner Bedoya and his team expressed their commitment to ensuring fairness, emphasizing the role of the Federal Trade Commission as the nation’s consumer protection agency responsible for creating a level playing field for all businesses.

He further explained that the issues affecting grocers like Johnson in North Tulsa are not isolated incidents but occur throughout the United States. While there is a law in place that prevents distributors from offering lower prices to big-box retailers, it is not being effectively enforced.

Commissioner Bedoya hopes that by compiling both statistical evidence and personal experiences of those impacted by the lack of enforcement, he and his team can build a precedent-setting case that leads to the revival of this law. He stated, “The first step is to meet with community members here, like Mr. AJ, and find out exactly what you’re seeing, what they’re living in, and how it affects the community.”

Commissioner Bedoya emphasized the importance of visiting communities like North Tulsa and grocery stores like Oasis Fresh Market, recognizing the detrimental effects these issues can have on the well-being of individuals and communities alike.

He acknowledged that individuals residing in food deserts face significant health challenges, stating, “The sad fact is that that isn’t just inconvenient. It affects the amount of time you have here with your family, with your kids, with your spouse, with your parents, brothers, and sisters. It affects life expectancy and your quality of life. It affects your every single day.”

Federal government signals support for North Tulsa grocery store: Oasis Fresh Market

During the discussion on Wednesday, Commissioner Bedoya candidly explained that since the Federal Trade Commission is a law enforcement agency, the investigations they conduct are confidential and can take years to develop into legal cases. Therefore, it is likely that the community will only hear about the findings when a lawsuit is filed in the future.

To assure the community of his commitment to ongoing conversations and efforts to solve food insecurity issues in North Tulsa, Commissioner Bedoya stated, “I cannot promise you a case. I cannot promise you an investigation. What I can promise you is my time… What I can promise you is that you have someone in government who cares.”

He reiterated his intentions by adding, “My goal here is to do right by the people who I serve. That is why I’m here.”

Commissioner Bedoya’s visit represents a pivotal moment for the community, underscoring a shift in the federal government’s approach to enforcing laws aimed at protecting communities like North Tulsa. It highlights the message that neighborhoods should have access to essential resources without solely relying on the extraordinary efforts of individuals like Johnson, who has faced numerous challenges while endeavoring to provide food for his community.

Without sustained efforts to investigate the unfair advantages enjoyed by big corporations over independent grocers, the path to sustainability and the expansion of much-needed grocery stores like Oasis will remain arduous.

“If there were Oases across the country, this would be a better country,” Bedoya remarked.