Stepping up to the plate
BY JANET PEARSON & JULIE DELCOUR Associate Editors
Sunday, September 09, 2012
9/09/12 at 2:53 AM
Oklahoma's huge hunger numbers are hard to fathom much less stomach. Oklahoma ranks as the fourth most food-insecure state in the country. In a state of 3.8 million, 664,890 of our residents, including one in five children, are in danger of going to bed hungry.
To understand the breadth and depth of the issue consider this:
At capacity, the University of Oklahoma's Memorial Stadium holds 82,122 fans. Boone Pickens Stadium at Oklahoma State University seats 60,218. The number of food-insecure Oklahomans could fill both stadiums four times over with enough people remaining to fill the 30,000-seat University of Tulsa's H.A. Chapman Stadium three times over. Even with that, 5,530 struggling Oklahomans would not have a seat.
In Tulsa County, 36,680 children fall into the food-insecure category, with 80 percent of the students in Tulsa Public Schools eligible for free or reduced meal programs.
Were those meals not available, many of the kids would go hungry much of the time.
The number of Oklahomans qualifying for food stamps has grown steadily over the past four years with the state ranking among the highest in the nation in benefit demand. Sixteen percent of all Oklahomans - a record high - are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the Food Stamp Program.
Hunger at such high levels sounds like something from a Third World country, not our own backyard. And the situation could be a lot worse were it not for food stamp benefits and the work of agencies such as the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma and its 450 partner programs. The Food Bank is by far the single most important source of food for hunger-relief agencies in eastern Oklahoma, accounting for 70 percent of the food distributed by food pantries.
Food Bank administrators report that half their clientele who have used emergency food programs said that they regularly must choose between paying for food and paying for utilities.
Forty-five percent of seniors report having to choose between paying for food and paying for medical care or medicine; 44 percent must choose between paying for food and paying for gasoline for their cars; 36 percent had to choose between paying for food and paying rent or the mortgage.
Hunger mainly is the province of the poor but with the downturn in the economy the hunger issue has affected more middle-class families, who find themselves in need of help for the first time. The issue also affects more than the unemployed. At least one-third of the households that use emergency food programs have at least one employed adult.
Two-thirds of the emergency food programs in the state reported an increase in the number of clients coming to their sites for help over the past few years. Seventy-two percent of client households of emergency food programs stated that they sometimes or often could not afford to eat balanced meals.
Enter the Food Bank, which distributes the equivalent of more than one million meals each month. In recent years, the program has expanded to include significantly more fresh produce.
Oklahoma boasts a relatively low unemployment rate, 4.8 percent, compared with much of the rest of the nation. One might expect severe hunger issues where unemployment remains high. But the unemployment rate in Oklahoma hasn't seemed to reduce the demand for food. That need seems to keep growing by the day, straining a safety net that can only catch so many.
This is Hunger Action Month, a good time to raise awareness about how food insecurity affects so many Oklahomans. What can be done to further address the overwhelming need? How can we individually and collectively step up to the plate?
It might not sound all that exciting to most of us: a bagful of canned goods such as tuna and tomato sauce, a packet of macaroni, a package of cereal, a few other staples, some fresh produce.
But to senior citizens who seldom if ever get to venture out of their living quarters, such an offering is like manna from heaven.
About 40 to 50 seniors lined up at a recent food-distribution event at a west Tulsa senior housing complex to receive food products through the recently launched Senior Serving Program, one of the latest hunger-fighting and nutrition-promoting initiatives spearheaded by the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma. The fledgling program, a partnership with AARP Oklahoma, is starting up at the west Tulsa complex and soon will also be available at senior residential complexes in Nowata and Osage counties.
For most of the seniors who were there, the fresh foods were a welcome surprise. "For some reason, they weren't told they were getting produce," said Food Bank spokeswoman Susan Tilkin. "Each one of them said, 'I can't believe we're getting produce!'"
The food packets that go to the elderly recipients are designed to help meet the particular nutritional needs of seniors. Food Bank volunteers distribute the packets twice a month.
The Senior Serving Program grew out of the Food Bank's Food for Kids Backpack Program, which provides helpings of shelf-stable foods to schoolchildren in need of the extra nutrition.
"We are trying to reach out to the different age groups. Sometimes seniors are overlooked," noted Tilkin. "They're an age group that won't speak up."
They're also a demographic that is especially challenged when it comes to meeting their own nutritional needs. Many are without transportation, and public transportation is often out of the question for them, Tilkin said.
The Food for Kids program is now in its eighth year and likewise was devised to help meet the needs of children who often go without healthy food when they're not in school. Packages of snacks are distributed to the children at the end of the school week.
During the 2011-12 school year, the Food Bank distributed a total of 226,500 sacks, serving 7,345 children at 195 sites in eastern Oklahoma. In Tulsa County, 127,700 sacks of food were distributed at 76 sites, serving 4,136 students.
As is the case with other hunger-fighting programs, demand for this one is growing, and Food Bank officials expect demand for the senior program to swell as well. The hope is that both programs can continue expanding if enough help is generated.
The growing needs of children and the elderly in eastern Oklahoma highlight the message that advocates are trying to drive home this month. "The primary goal of Hunger Action Month is awareness, to let people know there are people in all communities struggling with hunger. ... It's right here in our communities. It is not some Third World problem," said Tilkin.
on the road
Several Days a week, Joe Braser drives a big truck into the desert and feeds people. A desert? There aren't any cacti or sand dunes where Braser travels but there is a monumental need in "food deserts," areas - usually rural - where almost no access exists for nutritional food by those struggling to get by.
To meet that need, the Food Bank, which serves 24 counties, launched the Mobile Pantry Program. Deliveries of food boxes, bread and fresh produce are made to designated sites within 30 miles or more from the nearest Food Partner Program. So far, the food bank only has the resources - Braser is the Mobile Pantry Program coordinator - to visit some communities every couple of months.
But it's big news when it happens. In the fiscal year ending June 30, the Mobile Pantry Program made 152 distributions, serving 45,232 individuals who represented 14,758 households. After reaching the one-million-pound milestone on Dec. 14 last year in Barnsdall, the program reached its two-million-pound milestone on Aug. 22 in Gore. Not too shabby for a program that only began in late 2010.
Last Friday, the Mobile Pantry Program visited Mannford, a stop that had been scheduled weeks ago. Included among the grateful recipients that day were survivors of last month's terrible wildfires.
In the tiny Osage County community of Avant, population 372, the approaching food deliveries were welcome news recently in an area with high poverty levels and almost no easy access to nutritional food. The nearest Food Partner Program is in Barnsdall, at least 15 miles away. A month ahead of time, up to 125 tickets for food boxes and fresh produce were distributed to eager residents.
At its schedule time, Braser and his truck rolled in, loaded with four pallets: one with 125 25-pound pantry boxes of staples and canned goods, one with bread, one with vegetables and another containing fruit. About 20-25 volunteers, some no more than 15 or 16 years old, but all with a strong desire to participate, spent an hour sorting the bread and fresh produce and placing items in individual, family-size totes. Then volunteers lined up to help ticket-holders load their food boxes. The aim is to quickly load the cars as they pass by so distribution can flow as smoothly as possible.
First in line that day was a woman who'd already worked a full shift at her job and who arrived still dressed in work clothing and boots. She counts herself among tens of thousands of Oklahomans who make up the working poor. They can barely pay the bills and often wonder if there will be enough food to feed their families.
As the woman drove through, she gratefully took the food box, bread and produce, profusely thanking the volunteers as they loaded the items into her car. A few minutes later she arrived back on the scene, this time on foot. Barely saying a word, she lined up, shoulder to shoulder, with the volunteers and started loading boxes into the passing cars.
"There's sometimes the perception," said Tilkin, who witnessed the scene that day, that people take the food they are given and just drive off without a second thought.
"What touched me was that this woman, who had already worked a hard day, wasn't content to just drive off. In the only way she could give back, she donated her time to make sure her fellow neighbors got the food they needed. She felt that it was the least she could do. Her gratitude just took my breath away."
Want to help out? There are lots of options for area residents who have the time or resources.
Arvest Bank is hosting its second annual food drive, a two-month effort to provide at least one million meals to hungry Oklahomans. Nonperishable food and monetary donations can be made to Arvest bank branches in Tulsa and surrounding communities throughout the drive, which ends on Nov. 3.
Beneficiaries of the drive will be 44 different organizations that provide meals in four states - Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma. Last year, the drive provided more than 1.2 million meals.
On Saturday, the sixth annual Step Up To The Plate To Fight Hunger began in Tulsa. From now until Sept. 16, 32 restaurants will donate 10 percent of proceeds from fixed-price meals to the Food for Kids program. Those proceeds in turn will be matched up to $25,000 by the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Three-course lunches are $12.95 and three-course dinners are $25-$35 per person, or $35 for two. Each prix fixe meal includes an appetizer, entree and dessert.
For those who prefer a hands-on approach, there are other options. The Food Bank encourages local folks with green thumbs to grow extra produce when they plant their gardens and donate some of it through the "Plant A Row" program. Several local individuals and organizations are helping to provide fresh produce through their own gardening efforts, including the Jewish Federation of Tulsa, Zach Kilburn and Tulsa MET High School's student-led community garden, and Homer Walker, a local gardener and food bank supporter who donates up to 1,500 pounds of fresh produce during the growing season.
Tilkin said the Food Bank encourages schools, churches and other organizations to launch community gardens to help fight hunger, and other businesses to do what they can to help. Southwood Nursery, she noted, helps out by providing plants. The Cherry Street Farmers Market launched an innovative coupon program called "Double Up" for food-stamp recipients that provides them with fresh produce. Individuals can make a difference by helping to sort and repackage food, work in the food bank culinary center, participate in the "Cooking Matters' educational program and even picking produce.
"Every little bit helps. It seems like such a huge problem, but if we don't tackle it bit by bit, we'll never get to our end goal," said Tilkin.
Janet Pearson 918-581-8328 Julie Delcour 918-581-8379