1. You are the executive director of Hunger Free Oklahoma. What are you guys doing to address hunger and how is that work different than what area food banks are doing?
People are often surprised when they learn that an organization called Hunger Free Oklahoma does not distribute food. There are many great organizations providing food directly to Oklahoma families — including the food banks, Meals on Wheels, schools, churches and more. We work with those organizations to help expand access to Federal Nutrition Programs — which account for 93% of nutrition assistance dollars in the state.
We solve problems, connect with stakeholders and bring them to the table, build capacity of government and community partners, and advocate at the federal, state and local levels for policies and programs that reduce food insecurity.
Our efforts ensured that 30,000 meals were served during the teacher walkout in 2018. Working with our partners led to 12 times more after-school suppers being served between 2015 and 2017. These are just a few ways that policy, collaboration, capacity building and advocacy can create sustainable solutions to ending hunger in Oklahoma.
2. How does hunger affect the state’s economy and what is the economic impact of your efforts to connect people with available assistance programs and bring those tax dollars back to the state?
Hunger costs Oklahoma $1.4 billion a year in things like medical costs, loss of workforce productivity and loss of educational opportunities. We know if we met national benchmarks, Oklahoma would bring back an additional $400 million annually to address hunger. In just over two years, Hunger Free Oklahoma has built partnerships, programs and systems resulting in an additional $37.7 million annually.
In 2018, Oklahoma had a $30.4 million increase in SNAP dollars brought back to support Oklahoma families in need. That doesn’t count the economic impact of those SNAP dollars as they are spent in the local economy, which is estimated to be about $1.70 for every $1 of SNAP spent. While statewide eligibility for SNAP has decreased as the economy is improving, strong public-private partnerships, outreach and innovation have connected a greater percentage of eligible families in need with the program.
3. When did you discover a passion for fighting hunger and why is that an issue you chose to throw your advocacy efforts behind?
I have always had a passion to solve inequality, especially when it relates to poverty. For most of my career, I worked on issues, such as juvenile justice, where I experienced the long-term impact of adverse childhood experiences. Many of the young adults I worked with would have had fewer challenges if risk factors were addressed earlier in their lives. Hunger is one of those risk factors. Almost every person I helped over the past decade experienced hunger at some point in their lives.
Solving hunger does more than just address nutrition. Consistent access to food reduces negative outcomes and increases positive outcomes in academics, health, income and more. We can’t be a top 10 state if we don’t address hunger systemically.
4. How does hunger in Tulsa compare to hunger in other places you’ve lived and worked, including Chicago and Austin?
The faces of hunger are diverse, and no person’s story is the same. However, we know that many of the root causes of hunger are universal across communities. It may be related to a temporary crisis, such as losing a job or a major medical event. It might be cyclical due to unreliable work hours or seasonal jobs. It might be due to inadequate wages, even though you work multiple jobs to support your family. It might be pervasive because you are disabled, live in a struggling community with little opportunity or work in an industry that has reduced its workforce.
Something that is different in Tulsa and Oklahoma from other places I’ve lived is the stigma surrounding the resources available to address hunger. People who need SNAP or other programs often choose not to participate because of the stigma. Others view food assistance as something that other people need more than they do and they don’t want to take resources away from a more in-need family. But the truth is that the programs are designed to assist all who need them — to help get us back on our feet in times of struggle.
The stigma must be addressed, and we do that through education, outreach and continuing to normalize the issue. To quote a working mother on SNAP whom we recently met, “There should be no stigma when it comes to feeding your children.”
5. If you had to work in a different field, what would it be and why?
I think that pragmatic leadership is needed in government, leadership that will work to accomplish shared goals, leadership that is willing to acknowledge differences but continues to work with those who have differing opinions. I have spent my career serving others and would like to go back into government at some point to apply my experience in building public-private partnerships from the nonprofit side and implementing systemic change to create a real difference for the future of the communities I love so much.
Driver Impairment Awareness Day has locals smoking weed and driving