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An oasis in the desert

TU students tackle food insecurity in Tulsa as part of Global Scholars program

According to the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, one in six adults and one in four children in Oklahoma live with food insecurity each day.

Those statistics proved eye opening for business students Austin Boyington and Darcy Elmore, who are part of TU’s Global Scholars program, a community of students engaged in global issues. Their cohort explored food insecurity in the program’s Global Challenges class, which focuses on a different theme each semester.

The class split into teams tasked with developing solutions to alleviate the problem of food insecurity in Oklahoma. Boyington and Elmore’s team chose to pursue a way to provide healthy options to areas with limited or no access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other food desertswhole foods, also known as food deserts.

Boyington, a sophomore international business and language major said, “I’m from Tulsa and didn’t know this problem existed. There are people who live in the same city that I do and just because of where they live or were born, they don’t have access to the same type of food that I do. I take that for granted.”

Elmore, a junior marketing major, said the group brainstormed ways to provide fresh food to areas that don’t have grocery stores. “We asked ourselves, ‘What did people do before refrigeration?’” She recalled her grandfather, who recently retired from a lifetime of farming, sharing a story about drying meat as a means of preserving it. That sparked an idea. “Dehydrating fresh fruits and vegetables would extend the shelf life and would still capture a lot of the nutrients.” The problem? She doesn’t cook — and neither did anyone on the team. And they lacked a viable solution for distributing their product.

Connecting with the Tulsa community

They reached out to Katie Plohocky, a community member they met through the Global Challenges class. She runs R&G Family Grocers, a mobile grocery truck that services food deserts in the Tulsa area. “Katie took us under wing, and that’s how it all got started,” said Elmore.

Elmore and Boyington prepare food in Plohocky’s commercial kitchen

Though implementation of the idea wasn’t a class requirement, Plohocky’s support gave the group confidence to move forward. “We started looking for ways to raise money,” said Elmore. With a grant from TU’s Center for Global Education, they purchased a commercial grade food dehydrator and attended a training workshop.

Fittingly named Desert Foods, a play on the absence of water in their product, the group’s business began to take shape. They developed a logo and product packaging and began working to perfect recipes. As Boyington explained, “Starting a business is hard — especially starting a food-related business. There are so many regulations and standards that you have to meet in regard to food safety and packaging.”

Elmore heard an ad for the Tulsa Start-Up Series, a competition for entrepreneurs that awards a cash prize to the winning team. “We submitted our application and made it to the finals of the Food and Retail category,” she said. Though they didn’t win that category or the subsequent rounds of the competition, they’ve used the judges’ feedback to refine their concept along the way. “We learned a lot about failing,” said Boyington, “but it’s been a good experience.”

To expand awareness of their initiative and build a group of volunteers, the group formed Students Against Food Inequality. “We hope to be an organization that shows TU students are interested in making a difference and investing time in the issue of food inequality,” said Elmore.

“TU is a force for good in the Tulsa area”

Both Elmore and Boyington cite the benefits of being able to work on a project of this scope as a student. “Most people don’t get to do this until they leave college,” said Boyington. “I’m learning skills I’d probably be learning 10 years down the road.” Elmore added that, “Growing up, I was always interested in great companies that also did good. I think that’s a really powerful business model, and something I’d want to do or be involved in.”

They hope to create a sustainable business model for Desert Foods so that TU students continue to carry out its mission. “It’s good for TU because students get practical business experience and it’s good for the community,” said Boyington. “It shows TU is a force for good in the Tulsa area.”