To begin to understand Rodney Bivens, executive director and founder of the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, you might want to start with his childhood friend, Walter. Then add Walter to the faces of those Bivens met at Hamilton Courts, Kerr Village and Ambassador Courts in the early 1970s during his graduate school practicum work in the field.
As a child, Walter, who later was killed in Vietnam, was thin and would quickly devour what little food his family had. Bivens, even though his family would have given it gladly, would sneak food out of his house for Walter.
Then, in 1973, while working on his master's degree in social work, Bivens spent many days with residents of housing projects, including the children.
Add those experiences for a better understanding of Bivens' passion in 2012.
In Fiscal Year 2010-2011 — ending June 30, 2011 — the Regional Food Bank distributed a record-setting 46.2 million pounds of food to more than 825 charitable feeding programs and elementary schools in 53 central and western Oklahoma counties.
“I believe we are all the sum of the parts of our past experiences,” he said. “How I view the world around me and what makes me passionate about making sure people have food is a direct result of what I experienced personally as a child and what I witnessed in others as an adult.
“Once you have seen the lackluster eyes of a child who is hungry, or heard the fear in the voice of a senior who is afraid to fill a prescription because to do so means going without food, you don't forget it.”
Bivens carries those painful, yet driving memories into 2012.
National food donations are down at least 40 percent compared with the previous year, he said.
In addition, the high cost of food is going to be a significant challenge for Oklahomans.
The drought, floods and other extreme weather conditions impacted the production of peanuts, produce and other products, which now is being felt in the checkout lanes of grocery stores across the country, he said.
“Peanut butter is a perfect example,” he said. “It's a staple of our Food for Kids Backpack Program, and it's gone up nearly 40 percent over the last few months. While this kind of increase may only cause a small lifestyle change for some, for those who are financially struggling, it can mean pure disaster. Imagine trying to live on a limited budget and then having to face a 30- to 40 percent increase in your food budget.”
Bivens said many Oklahomans remain in a cycle of chronic underemployment in order to support and sustain their families. They are faced with trying to make ends meet while still providing nutritious food for their family.
“A lack of food will also continue to impact the emotional and physical well-being of our state's children,” Bivens said. “Without the proper nutrition, children cannot thrive in school and the cycle of poverty has little chance of being broken.”