AT the Jesus House in Oklahoma City, scores of people turned out Monday in the biting cold for a turkey and a sack of groceries to help them through this Thanksgiving. We'll see similar displays at shelters and food pantries across the state this holiday season.
Indeed, we see them year-round in Oklahoma because so many of our residents are “food insecure” — that is, there's no guarantee they'll eat three meals every day. Simply put, they are hungry. Hungry children don't do as well in school as their food-secure classmates. They're more prone to health problems; hungry adults aren't as productive in the workplace and also are more likely to be unhealthy.
The Oklahoma Food Security Committee estimates that hunger cost the state $2.38 billion in 2010, for such things as medical and educational expenses and loss of potential revenue that healthier adults could have earned. So it's a major and longstanding concern.
And yet, there are considerable efforts to help those in need. Numerous private initiatives, such as food drives conducted by schools and churches, are popular and beneficial. Uncle Sam helps too, through a variety of programs that were the focus of a recent report by the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
One is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps. It averaged nearly 615,000 Oklahomans on its rolls each month during fiscal year 2012. Of those, 43.5 percent were children and 30.3 percent were elderly or disabled adults. OK Policy said this federally funded program “is the foundational food security program” but suggested improvements such as offering cash-back incentives to SNAP recipients who buy healthier food, and restricting SNAP eligibility on items such as soft drinks and some processed food.
Four federal programs are aimed specifically at poor children: the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Special Mile Program and the Summer Food Service Program. Sixty-two percent of all enrolled Oklahoma school kids were eligible for free or reduced-price school food programs during the 2011-12 school year, OK Policy said. Its suggestion to policymakers: Work to improve the nutritional quality of the food provided.
The Child and Adult Food Care Programs, paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, serves mostly day care centers in Oklahoma. The number of meals served has dropped each year since 2008, a somewhat encouraging sign. The feds also pay for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which gives poor mothers and their young children access to nutritious foods. About 86,000 mothers and kids eligible for WIC in 2010 didn't get assistance. OK Policy wants officials to spread the word through such things as expanding WIC offices.
Low-income senior citizens in Oklahoma can get meals through a variety of programs that use federal funds, including Congregate Meal Services and the Nutrition Services Incentive Program. Oklahoma also is the largest beneficiary of a federal program that provides commodity foods on Indian land.
A government program also provides food commodities to each state. In Oklahoma, most are directed to the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, which served more than 35 million meals in fiscal 2012, and the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma (12.9 million meals).
OK Policy noted that expiration of stimulus funds and federal sequestration cuts have affected some programs. “As a result, benefits frequently fall short of what is needed for a family's minimum food budget ... work remains to be done,” the liberal think tank said. True enough.
But at the same time, much is being done to try to address this pressing concern.