Guest Blog (Sara Amberg): A forecast we can't ignore

Sara Amberg is Manager of Agency Capacity Building of the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma.

The day before the February 2011 blizzard plowed through the Midwest, I heard a meteorologist report that he had never seen every radar system, every method of weather prediction all pointing to the same outcome.  This is serious, he warned. That turned out to be an understatement. The squall produced record snowfall, paralyzing Eastern Oklahoma and racking up millions in recovery costs. The historic “North American winter storm” now has its own Wikipedia page.

Indicators in the past months all forecast another dangerous storm for Oklahomans – one with a far more devastating outcome.

The USDA’s 2010 report on Household Food Security was released in September. While the nation’s food insecurity rates have declined slightly, Oklahoma’s rates continue to increase. We are officially tied with Arkansas for the highest percentage of families with very low food security.

Also last month, Feeding America released their child food insecurity data. One in four children in Oklahoma is now at risk of going to bed hungry. One-third of those that struggle with limited or uncertain access to adequate food are not even eligible for nutrition programs, such as SNAP or WIC.

The Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma’s partners – emergency food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, Food for Kids programs, and senior citizen centers – reported an alarming 45 percent increase in demand for food assistance since July. The head of an emergency food pantry recently told me that the combination of drought and high unemployment has not only sky-rocketed requests for food, but has created a “devastating” landscape. Many of our partners’ neighboring farmers, who once grew our food, are now the ones asking for help to feed their families. Because of the record heat, many families did not seek out assistance over the summer and are now showing up at emergency pantries in need of not only food assistance—they need serious medical attention.

The situation on the ground is compounded by the reduction in food sourcing here at the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, where our warehouse is at half its capacity. And if we are struggling, our partners in the fight against hunger are hurting even more. In recent taskforce meetings with representatives from our agencies, they informed us that while the need for emergency food assistance has increased, donations have equally plummeted.

Meanwhile, another front is headed from Washington. The REFRESH Act, introduced in Congress earlier this month, proposes major reforms and $40 billion in cuts to agriculture programs, including $14 billion from nutrition programs. According to the Food Research and Action Center, “this proposal comes on the heels of a Farm Bureau proposal last Thursday September 29 recommending that 30% of any cuts to agriculture programs be taken from nutrition.”

In September, my own family took on the SNAP food stamp challenge. Starting with nothing in our pantries, I, my husband, and our two children tried to spend a month living off a $326 food budget, the average benefit for a household in Oklahoma. We could not accept food from relatives or eat out. We failed at the challenge, holding on by a string for 20 days.

Our middle class family couldn’t meet the SNAP challenge, but we still had money in a bank account, a working car, a steady job, reliable health care and a loving support system of family, friends and church. Take all that away and add the extreme stress of long-term unemployment or a minimum wage job, unforeseen circumstances like a broken down car or a broken leg, no personal or financial assets, a bad case of the flu, and inadequate education, and proposed cuts to nutrition programs seem ridiculous, unrealistic, and anything but compassionate.

SNAP is a “supplemental nutrition assistance program.” It is not a revolving door to the supermarket. It is not a hand-out. It is not “wasteful” spending. It is a life-vest.

Need is up. Donations are down. Add cuts to nutrition programs and you turn a serious situation into a life-threatening dilemma. We would be asking households to sacrifice with average monthly incomes of $731. Of these households, 75% include senior citizens or disabled individuals and nearly half are responsible for the care of children. Nutrition assistance programs are not the appropriate sacrifice this year, but rather the greater good needed for already struggling Oklahomans today.

We encourage the public to contact the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma or the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma to inquire about ways they can help our neighbors to weather this storm. We also implore them to contact their legislators and tell them to divert the perfect storm of hunger headed our way.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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