Food Desert Problem Gets Geoscientific Treatment

Dec 6, 2012

It’s commonly understood that North Tulsa suffers from being a food desert. Many residents don’t have sufficient access to grocery stores to maintain healthy lifestyles.

TU grad student Aaron Ball presents a map showing where his model suggests would be the best place for a new North Tulsa grocery store.
Credit Catherine Roberts

One store, the Gateway Market, at Pine and North Peoria, is one of the only options North Tulsa residents have for buying groceries.

In Tulsa, there are a few groups and individuals working on that problem. The Tulsa Food Security Council has a mobile grocery store in the works, for instance.

That’s an attractive option, because choosing where to locate—any store, grocery or otherwise—is tricky. It’s a problem that one University of Tulsa student, Aaron Ball, who’s participating in a new fellowship at the school, is working to solve.

He’s a TU NOVA fellow, and he is working on his Master’s degree in the Geosciences department.

So, why is a geoscientist tackling the problem of a food desert?

As an undergrad, Ball did a lot of volunteer work with the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, as well as the Kendall Wittier Food Bank.

As it turns out, his area of expertise could prove valuable to addressing the problem.

“For a business to start,” Ball explained, “it must choose a location to do its business.”

At a presentation of his project, Ball explained that there are a couple of models businesses generally use to select a location.

One is through real estate analysis—you have to find a location that’s big enough for your business. That method worked for Gateway Market, sort of, Ball says.

“Gateway Market went into the location of a failed Albertsons,” he said. “It was the right size, but now they have a store that, customers will complain, seems like it has a lot of empty space.”

The other way is through financial data analysis—comparing how other similar businesses are performing in a particular location. The problem is that in a food desert, there aren’t similar businesses around.

This lack of tools is one factor that contributes to the dearth of grocery stores. An owner won’t open a new store if there isn’t enough information about how likely the store is to be profitable in a particular location.

Ball wants to give potential grocery store owners a new tool.

“A gravity model gives entrepreneurs in these areas an alternative method,” he said.

Charlie Wood, a professor in TU’s Marketing Department, who’s an administrator for the NOVA fellowship, elaborates.

“[It] takes into account the size of stores and distances, sort of like Newton’s law does,” he said. The goal is “to find an optimal location for grocery stores in Tulsa food deserts.”

There’s some nifty calculation that goes into accomplishing that—describing, as Ball put it, “the probability that a customer will go to the nearest store versus traveling to another store, a greater distance to another store.”

And, it worked. Ball’s model gives a pretty clear indication about the optimal location for a new North Tulsa grocery store: at about 36th Street North and North Peoria.

Ball says he has a few more calculations to do to give his findings more weight with companies considering a North Tulsa location. In the meantime, however, remember that mobile grocery store? He thinks that could be a good way to informally experimentally test his findings.

“If we have like a weekly revenue of several thousand dollars predicted by the model,” he said, “does the mobile grocery store reproduce that? What’s the error? Can we apply this to other areas of Tulsa? That sort of thing.”

This, aside from being just really cool, could add convincing evidence to a case to a business owner thinking of locating a new grocery store in North Tulsa.