Effie Craven serves as the State Advocacy and Public Policy Director for the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, where she advocates for programs and policies that promote access to nutritious foods and economic security for all Oklahomans.

Photo by Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma

Photo by Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma

In the food banking world, we frequently measure need in terms of “food insecurity.” Food insecurity is an economic condition describing a lack of adequate access to affordable, nutritious food. According to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap, there are more than 650,000 food insecure people in Oklahoma — about 1 in 6 Oklahomans. At the same time, rates of chronic disease like hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease remain high, and Oklahoma continues to have one of the highest obesity rates in the nation.

Chronic disease and food insecurity are intricately linked and often lead to a vicious cycle. As limited income is stretched further by an illness and families are forced to make difficult choices, food is often the only part of a budget with any flexibility. Because healthy food is typically more expensive and has a shorter shelf-life than processed foods, families may opt for cheaper, longer-lasting but nutrition-deficient foods.

Poor diet and inadequate nutrition contribute to obesity and chronic disease, which come with high medical costs and often demanding treatment plans that can limit a person’s ability to continue working. Alarmingly, 66 percent of households served by the Oklahoma Food Banks report having to choose between food and medical care. Further, 24 percent of people served by the Oklahoma Food Banks report having at least one member in their household who is in poor health, and one in three of the people we serve lack health insurance of any kind.

“Oklahoma ranks worst in the nation for access to health care, Oklahoma City ranks second worst in the nation for access to healthy food, and 43 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties are classified by the USDA as food deserts.”

The damaging impacts of this cycle are not limited to those individuals experiencing it; it is estimated that hunger costs our health care system more than $160 billion annually. Unfortunately, rather than working to address the costly and often preventable health consequences of food insecurity, policymakers too often focus on making it more difficult for people in poverty to access health care at all.  

For hundreds of thousands of food insecure Oklahomans, significant barriers stand in the way of living healthier lifestyles to mitigate the effects of chronic disease. Oklahoma ranks worst in the nation for access to health care, Oklahoma City ranks second worst in the nation for access to healthy food, and 32 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties are classified by the USDA as food deserts.

As part of our extensive efforts to address food insecurity and its effects, the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma has developed a strategic initiative to improve health outcomes for low-income, high-risk individuals through the Fresh Rx program.

Fresh Rx is a collaboration that involves community partners, schools, state and county health departments, and health care facilities such as hospitals, clinics, and Federally Qualified Health Centers. The program is designed to eliminate key barriers to improved health, including a lack of access to healthy food and transportation challenges. The program includes monthly fresh produce and pantry goods distributions, nutrition education classes, wellness resources, and targeted clinical care to participating individuals. We are also educating health care providers about the importance of screening patients, especially children, for food insecurity, emphasizing health and fresh produce throughout our network of food pantries and partner agencies across the state, providing additional services in underserved areas including food deserts, and advocating for policies that will expand access to health care for low-income Oklahomans.

We cannot do it alone. Systemic change is necessary to address the complex factors contributing to food insecurity and chronic disease in Oklahoma. Federal safety net programs like SNAP, WIC, and the National School Breakfast and School Lunch programs are critical in keeping millions of Americans out of poverty and adequately fed. State and local policies that promote access to health care, education, and economic advancement are no less important. In order to move the needle on hunger and health status in Oklahoma, we need to make a collective commitment to ensure that our most vulnerable citizens are not trapped in a cycle of poverty and chronic disease.

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