Get past the child's peach-fuzz cheeks and the senior's well-lined brow. Listen to how the stomach of each rumbles like a distant thunderstorm. Notice how the working mom is so helpful to customers and co-workers but never brings a lunch. There's not enough food to feed the children, much less the mother, so mom lovingly does without. Oklahoma ranks as the sixth hungriest state in the nation, where 500,000 people wonder every day where their next meal will come from, according to the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. When I climbed in the cab of the Regional Food Bank's white Freightliner, I thought the 53-foot trailer behind driver Dwayne Hickman and me was full of food. I was right and wrong. Elizabeth Newman of the Judah House outreach center in Cordell told me so, as did Bob Shaw at the Hobart Area Ministerial Food Pantry. They didn't tell me in rude terms; they told me by sharing their stories of how hunger continues to jab a fist into the nearly empty bellies of more and more people. I'd seen the new statistics. The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma distributed 36.4 million pounds of food in its 2009-2010 fiscal year, about 8 million pounds more than in the previous fiscal year. But Newman and Shaw put faces to those sorrowful numbers. They told me about the children, the seniors, the working mom and many others. Their stories convinced me that the 53-foot trailer, in addition to being full of food, was also full of hope for the hungry.
The helper in needOutside, Hickman was using an electric pallet jack to unload cauliflower, apple sauce, crackers and beef steak fritters, as volunteers stood by to move the food to dry or frozen storage. Inside, Newman told me about a man who had come to see her the previous day. He was injured, unable to afford insurance and had a wife and three children. The wife was trying to work, but the ends were still not meeting. The groceries were about gone. He had come for help. "This is someone who used to bring things to the thrift store or would help unload a truck,” Newman said, "and now he needs help for his family.” The Judah House feeds about 350 families in Washita County, up 30 families from last year. Is it the economy? Is it the senior who is struggling to pay utility bills? Or is it the mother whose husband walked out on his wife and children? Yes, in each case, Newman said. "People have it hard, very hard right now,” she said. Yes, now. The Regional Food Bank distributed more than 4.3 million pounds in June alone, which is the largest single monthly distribution in its 30 years. In fact, three of the largest months for distribution have come since March of this year. That's one reason the food in the trailer is so critical. The Regional Food Bank is able to provide enough food to feed more than 77,000 hungry Oklahomans each week.
'A bittersweet feeling'The food pantry in Hobart, sponsored by the Hobart Ministerial Association, is located in a two-story house. Looking out through a window, in what was once the living room, I nodded toward the Regional Food Bank truck sitting on Jefferson Street. Shaw turned around and looked at it. How important is the food in that truck to your area? It's been estimated that probably 20 to 22 percent of the population in Kiowa County is in danger of being hungry, Shaw said. "They are not certain that they will be able to eat tonight or tomorrow,” he added. But the food in the truck sitting on Jefferson Street isn't just for Hobart's pantry, which serves about 70 families each Thursday. The food also goes to about 50 families in Mountain View twice a month and 60 to 65 families twice a month in Snyder. In April, the Hobart pantry served 495 households in Hobart, Snyder and Mountain View. That is the most in a single month in the pantry's 16-year history. Men will come into the pantry after losing their jobs in the oil field and say, "This is the last place I want to be.” Or a church calls Shaw and asks him to go to the pantry to give some food to a woman who has two little children and is pregnant. "We see what we do here as a bittersweet feeling,” Shaw said. "It is so sad there's a need for this food pantry, and yet it's such a joy we're able to be here to meet it. If it weren't for the Regional Food Bank and if we didn't have the food pantry, I don't know how some people would eat.”