'I'm very thankful for it': Christian nonprofit works to fill a need in NE OKC food desert
Some residents of a northeast Oklahoma City neighborhood initially were surprised to learn that a small grocery had opened in their midst.
These days, The Market at Restore OKC, 2222 NE 27, is attracting more customers as nearby neighbors discover the fresh produce and other products they couldn't typically find so close to home.
"When they learn that it's in North Creston Hills they are intrigued because they want to know about it, they want to see where it is," said Brandi Jones, the market's manager.
"When they come in and they see it, they say, 'This is nice!'"
Caylee Dodson, executive director of Restore OKC, said her group's original vision was for a farmer's market where the Christian community development organization could make fresh fruits and vegetables from its greenhouses and community garden available.
Then, a grocery store in northeast Oklahoma City, the Smart Saver at 2001 NE 23, abruptly closed in August 2019 and Restore OKC leaders felt they had to expand their vision.
Dodson said Ward 7 Oklahoma City Councilwoman Nikki Nice and the Oklahoma City Council helped Restore OKC by approving the rezoning for the organization's property for retail use as a full-size supermarket.
The market is part of Restore's headquarters, in a vacant church building nestled in the North Creston Hills, a housing addition generally bounded by Martin Luther King Avenue, NE 30, Interstate 35 and NE 23.
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Dodson said Restore OKC wanted to do its part to help residents living in the 73111 ZIP code, which has been described as a food desert, an area lacking access to healthy foods. The 73111 ZIP code is generally bounded by NE 16 on the south and Wilshire Boulevard on the north, between N Kelley Avenue and Interstate 35.
She said the organization stepped up its efforts to promote the market as the coronavirus outbreak began to affect Oklahomans, "knowing that in these moments, more vulnerable communities have a hard time meeting basic needs."
Dodson said Mark Jones, chief executive officer of Homeland, has allowed Restore OKC to order goods through Homeland, making sure that the market receives food shipments just like any other grocer. A new Homeland grocery store and corporate headquarters is expected to open at NE 36 and Lincoln Boulevard in the future.
Pamela Walters, a neighborhood resident who leads Restore OKC's Community Advisory Team, said she has been pleased with how the market has evolved since it opened in November 2019 offering basic items.
The market has added numerous items — from fresh produce, meat, milk, snacks and a variety of canned goods to pantry staples like rice, beans and peanut butter and household items like bath soap and laundry detergent. Set up like the general stores of yesteryear, until the COVID-19 outbreak, older adults gathered at the market to play games and catch up on the latest community news.
"I'm very thankful for it. I just wish more people knew about it," Walters said.
Walters and Jones said older residents, in particular, benefit from having the market in their midst.
"A number of older people really need something close to them but yet something they can afford," Walters said.
Jones said she currently lives in Midwest City but she grew up in North Creston Hills and owned and operated Family Affair, a nearby restaurant, for many years. She has been spreading the word about the market on social media and telling people in homes close by to stop in for a visit.
"I think it is just awesome for the community," she said.
Dodson said after the COVID-19 crisis ends, Restore OKC will work to expand its vision of the market to include a coffee shop, and offer breakfast and lunch.
Dodson said the market will remain as a full grocery even after the current crisis is over to make sure neighborhood residents have access to healthy food.
"Everything changes every day, but one thing we're committed to is this won't change," Dodson said, looking around at the store.
Partnering to offer aid
A drive-thru food distribution day was held at Restore OKC on Thursday, giving the organization an opportunity to distribute fliers about the market.
The organization partnered with Skyline Urban Ministry, which brought food for students and families affiliated with three elementary schools in the Oklahoma City School District. Families from the Thelma Parks, Britton and Martin Luther King elementary schools drove through the Restore OKC parking lot where the Rev. Bo Ireland of Skyline and several volunteers gave them sacks of groceries.
The Rev. Deborah Ingraham, executive director of Skyline, said her agency partners with several groups around the city to help food-insecure residents. Skyline is a ministry affiliate of the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church. Skyline brought food for students and families affiliated with three elementary schools in the district.
"We're just trying to get as much food to folks as we can, as safely as we can," Ingraham said.
Dodson said Restore OKC partnered with Skyline to provide immediate help to families reeling from the current crisis.
"While we try to focus on dignity-first shopping experiences, we love working with our partners in emergencies, when more critical needs arise," she said.
To learn more
For more information about Restore OKC or to make a donation, go to RestoreOKC.org.
For more information about Skyline Urban Ministries or to make a donation, go to https://www.skylineurbanministry.org.