While Osage Nation officials consider prospects for the former Palace of the Osage Grocery store building in Fairfax, a temporary store rolled into town as a single-day food shopping option on Oct. 24.
The mobile farmers market – built in a former school bus – is operated by a co-op of regional farmers and food makers called the Oklahoma Farm to Fork Market. The food truck parked next to the vacant Palace building and set up shop for three hours selling fresh and organic-based foods to area residents now living without a grocery store for over a year.
The food truck came to Fairfax at the invitation of the ON Executive Branch and Osage citizen Sheryl Hill who suggested the mobile store idea as a temporary solution to the ongoing grocery store issue. The Nation owns the Palace building and offered to provide electricity from the building to the truck equipped with onboard freezers and refrigerators for its perishables.
From 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Osage and non-Osage locals climbed aboard the food truck to browse and buy from the selection of farmers market food items including frozen meats, vegetable greens, breads, nuts, cheese, eggs, frozen prepared entrees and jar-packed jams. Afterward, the Covington, Okla.-based food truck operators, Paulette and Gary Rink, packed up and headed to the next stop on their Wednesday afternoon schedule in Stillwater.
“It’s not a permanent solution but it’s a start,” said Hill who asked the Rinks to bring their mobile store to Fairfax after learning of their business through the Internet. “I just got sick and tired of hearing ‘no, no, no we can’t,’ I’m tired of the waiting. Let’s do something.”
Raymond Lasley, executive advisor of programs for the Nation, said Hill contacted him with the food truck suggestion and he visited with Principal Chief John Red Eagle who gave the OK for the food truck to use the building’s electricity while open.
“We’re not profiting from this in any way, it’s a public service,” Lasley said of accommodating the food truck. “It’s a small price to pay to bring fresh meats and produce here.” The Rinks agreed to a one-month trial run to bring their food truck to Fairfax each Wednesday to sell food during the same time frame, he said.
Lasley and fellow Osages Danette Daniels and Julie O’Keefe enjoyed the idea of organic food including cage-free eggs they purchased from the food truck that day. “You could tell (the beets) were chopped recently, it was clean, everything was so organized in there” said O’Keefe, who is familiar with farmers markets kept in larger cities including Washington, D.C. where she also lives in neighboring Virginia.
Mixed feelings, thoughts on farmers markets
Other local residents chimed in with mixed feelings about the food truck visit. The higher cost of organic food dominated the chatter raising questions on whether the organic food truck would be successful in Fairfax with several residents living in low-income households.
Osages Wendy Ponca and her daughter, Alex Stock, bought food from the truck but expressed concern about the prices. Ponca was disappointed the food truck did not sell milk – high on her grocery list that day.
Ponca said she spent a total of $50 on eggs, kale, cheese, apple jelly, organic homemade soap and an entrée of frozen enchiladas costing $12. “I can’t afford to buy this everyday,” Ponca said.
Food prices in the food truck include: acorn squash is $1 each; mix-and-match vegetables for $6; a jar of mild salsa is $10; a three-pound bag of granola costs $18; a two-pound bottle of honey is $10; one pound of pork is $6; and a frozen four-pack of tamales is $11.
The Rinks’ food truck prices include tax, said Paulette Rink who grows some of the food on her family farm and sells products from fellow farmers and food makers belonging to the Oklahoma Farm to Fork Market network.
The Rinks, who operate their farm business under the name Rowdy Stickhorse, tout health benefits of organic food despite pricing concerns.
“Everything that we do is for health reasons,” said Paulette Rink, “We’re not cheap, we don’t say we’re cheap when you come on at $6 a pound for ground beef, but it’s good, it’s healthy, it’s lean, no toxins, no chemicals, no antibiotics, no hormones.”
According to WebMD.com, consumers can expect “to pay 50-100 percent more for organic foods. That’s because, in general, it is more labor-intensive, and without the help of pesticides, the yield is not always as favorable.”
Paulette Rink cautioned that farmers markets typically sell fruits and vegetables that are presently in season. She told inquiring store visitors that certain items, including tomatoes, were not available as growers in the farmers market network were not growing them.
The Rink’s food truck only accepts cash or checks for purchases. It cannot accept credit cards after efforts to use a remote Internet credit card machine were unsuccessful in Fairfax. The Oklahoma Farm to Fork Market also sets up shop in Enid and at both north and south Oklahoma Heart Hospitals in Oklahoma City on a weekly basis.
Johnna Johnson (Osage) did not buy anything from the truck but said she knew the prices would be a concern for several residents after visiting farmers markets in the past. “This is a poor community, organic food is all fine, but it’s going to cost more.”
Osage resident Joe Conner also did not buy anything but browsed the food truck and said afterward: “I think this is an effort that’s not going to work, it’s too expensive.”
Conner said the grocery store absence could eventually impact Fairfax’s population. “How can you recruit teachers, doctors, other professionals without a grocery store? Their spouses will get tired of driving back and forth for everything,” he said.
Hill said she believes the organic food costs are worth it and could be used as a stepping stone to encourage Osages to eat healthier with organic foods. She also added residents using the food truck would save on money used to travel out of town for groceries which include “processed foods.”
“When you go to supermarkets, do you know where that beef is coming from? Do you know where the eggs are coming from? You don’t know how produce was grown,” Hill said. “To the naked eye, it’s more expensive but it’s going to improve your health. I’d rather pay $6 for meat than $20, $40, $150 for medication to control a disease.”
The food truck idea is the latest move in the ongoing debate to resolve the Palace grocery store issue. The Nation is marketing the store building after the Osage Limited Liability Company transferred ownership of the building back to the Nation earlier this year. The LLC acquired the Palace after launching in 2008, but sold the store to Barnsdall businessman Rick Parker in 2010 amid money losses. Parker, who had money problems of his own and was delinquent on taxes owed to the Oklahoma Tax Commission, closed the Palace in late 2011 and the LLC began foreclosure proceedings against Parker. As part of the foreclosure process, the store was sold at a March auction with the LLC purchasing the building for over $379,000.
Executive Branch considering three grocer business proposals
Lasley said the Nation is considering three prospective store ideas for the Palace building. “We’re waiting to see what kind of proposal they’re going to put on the table,” he said of the entities.
Lasley said the city of Fairfax is offering incentives to a grocer interested in opening a store such as waiving building utility costs for one year on water, trash and sewer use. For building electricity use, it’s unknown if provider Indian Electric Co-Op will also offer an incentive, he said.
Conner, along with Johnson’s mother Cecelia Tallchief, recently presented a nonprofit plan to the Third ON Congress and Principal Chief John Red Eagle’s office proposing to operate a grocery store out of the Palace building with a four-member local board providing oversight. Conner’s group, called Four Winds, presented the plan to the ON Congressional health and social services committee on Sept. 20 and requested $1.5 million to launch Four Winds and to hire a professional grocer to run the store.
The $1.5 million price tag raised eyebrows and elected Osage leaders were hesitant to immediately accept the plan after hearing it, prompting an Oct. 1 protest with Conner and about 20 Fairfax residents picketing at the Congressional chambers on the final day of the 2012 Tzi-Zho Session. Red Eagle came to the chambers that day and invited Conner and his Four Winds partners to an Oct. 4 meeting update on the store.
At the Oct. 4 meeting with about 12 Fairfax residents attending with Conner and Tallchief, Red Eagle said his office spoke with the Haynes family who operate a Medford, Okla. grocery store and the Wright family who operate the Affordable Foods store in Barnsdall. He added the Wrights are “slightly interested” in the store.
“We want to get someone in there who knows the grocery business, the only bargaining chip we have is the building,” Red Eagle said.
According to the Four Winds plan proposal, a board comprised of local Fairfax residents would run the grocery store and put the organization into nonprofit tax-exempt status. The store is not projected to break even in its first years, Conner said. The $1.5 million cost breakdown is: $50,000 to start the Four Winds organization; $950,000 to open the store; and $500,000 to hire a professional grocer to run the store.
Congressman William “Kugee” Supernaw, who is a critic of the Four Winds plan, said during the Oct. 4 meeting he’s reluctant to start a precedent in giving money to a group for the store and prefers the Nation find an experienced grocer to operate a store. “I think we’d be hard pressed to find an individual to go into business,” he said.
Congressional Speaker Raymond Red Corn referred to the Four Winds plan and noted: “There is no guarantee we won’t be back in this situation in five years.” Red Corn said he would support an investment by the Nation to upgrade the store equipment to make the building more viable for prospective grocers, noting electric bills could cost $5,000 to $13,000 per month if equipment isn’t operating normally. Red Corn encouraged Red Eagle to visit with other Congressional members to see what they’d be willing to contribute.
Conner acknowledged the skepticism of the nonprofit plan, but noted accountability will be local if the store fails under Four Winds. Conner, Tallchief, Mary Joe Webb (Osage) and former Oklahoma state Senator J. Berry Harrison would sit on the Four Winds board.
With regard to the Four Wind plan cost, Conner said the group did its grocery store study with the White family of Pawnee who have 50 years experience in operating small town stores. The Whites told the Four Winds group the Palace store operations failed due to poor accountability and forecast the nonprofit to break even in five years.
“I take that given you’d like to study this more, I think I can speak on behalf of the community: They would rather have it sooner than later. If we were a poor tribe, I wouldn’t be here talking about this,” Conner said at the meeting.
Paulette Rink said she did not immediately know the food truck did on its first Fairfax visit but estimated about 50 people came to visit the bus. It’s unknown how many of those bought items versus browsing and leaving.
The ON Congress will hear an Executive Branch update on the grocery business negotiations during a Congressional Commerce and Economic Development Committee meeting scheduled for 11 a.m. October 29 (Monday) in the Congressional chambers.