Pervasive hunger and food insecurity is taking a toll on lifelong health and success across the Tulsa area, but local leaders say a significant portion of eligible residents are not seeking assistance.

“Hunger doesn’t have county line boundaries. We have partners in Owasso saying their lines have doubled in the last few weeks. Jenks has a homeless coordinator,” said Eileen Bradshaw, executive director of the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma.

The Tulsa Regional Chamber hosted a forum Tuesday morning on hunger in Tulsa and the effects food access has on school and workplace performance and the local economy.

Bradshaw noted Oklahoma’s perennial low performance in national rankings of a variety of health, educational and economic indicators.

“I don’t want to say hunger is the reason why we’re on the naughty list all the time, but it’s a big part of it,” she said.

Panelists working on solutions to the problem locally or statewide said a variety of indicators point to lack of awareness both of the extent of the problem and resources available, plus social stigma as the main barriers to more people getting the help they need.

Deborah Gist, superintendent at Tulsa Public Schools, said many Tulsans are surprised to learn that 80 percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-rate school meals based on household income.

“Hungry children can’t learn very well. We know students perform less well academically, they have stronger attendance challenges, they are less likely to graduate and often behavior problems are attributable to hunger,” she said. “I don’t think people are aware of the kinds of need we have in our community. We know this is all a giant cycle that builds on itself.”

Gist praised state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister for making public awareness about the issue and school and summer feeding programs a top priority. And she noted that TPS has been constantly working to expand its federally funded meal programs to ensure local children have access to nutritious food.

“It can be confusing to know where can I go, am I eligible, I don’t feel comfortable going because I have pride. Those are things we have to overcome,” Gist said.

The executive director of the Tulsa Dream Center, a faith-based community center in north Tulsa that focuses on hunger, education and medical needs, said the demand is great — and totally obvious.

“Many boys and girls get there at 7:30 a.m. because they know if they get there early, we will feed them. Why? Because the last time they ate was when we closed yesterday at 3:30 p.m.” said Aaron Johnson.

Bradshaw, with the food bank, also noted that a common misconception is that people with full-time jobs do not need resources for the food insecure.

“Full employment doesn’t necessarily mean people can provide everything they need,” she said. “A ton of jobs here pay $10 or $11 an hour. Think about supporting a family on that — the math doesn’t work.”

Chris Bernard is chief executive officer of Hunger Free Oklahoma, a Tulsa-based nonprofit working to improve collaboration, systems and policies to increase Oklahomans’ access to affordable, nutritious food.

He said rampant food insecurity should matter to everyone. It exacerbates chronic diseases including kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity, is shown to lower reading and math scores and high school graduation rates and increase behavior and social problems in schools.

All of those effects bleed over into the area’s economy, by way of a labor force weakened by lower educational attainment and increased health care costs, Bernard said.

“Across the board, it’s going to impact the economy of the region,” he said. “It’s foundational.”

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Andrea is a projects reporter, examining key education topics and other local issues. Since joining the Tulsa World in 1999, she has been a three-time winner of Oklahoma’s top award for investigative reporting by an individual. Phone: 918-581-8470

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