Guest Blog (Sara Waggoner): Can emergency food programs continue to meet growing needs?

From time to time, we use the OK Policy blog to post submissions we receive from Oklahomans who have interesting perspectives on important policy issues for the state. This entry is from Sara Waggoner, Executive Director of the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma.

I have been in Food Banking for 28 years and just finished my 20th year as executive director of the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma. I have never seen the need for emergency food programs so prevalent or the increase in requests so high.

Emergency food programs were originally established to provide food for a short period of time to families who temporarily lacked enough money to meet all of their basic needs. Providing food allowed them to use their resources to pay a utility bill, put gas in the car to get to work or buy medicine. Families usually needed help two to four times per year, occasionally six times. Over the last two and a half years, not only has the number of people requesting help increased by 40 percent in the 24 counties served by the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, but, more and more families are relying on these emergency food programs to make it through each month.

Three recently released reports both confirm that hunger is a real problem in Oklahoma and provide a clearer understanding of who is affected by hunger and food insecurity.

According to numbers gathered in the spring of 2009 and reported in Hunger in America 2010 issued by Feeding America, 11.4 percent of Eastern Oklahomans are using emergency food programs, up from 10 percent at the time of the last study four years earlier. Forty-four percent of clients seeking food assistance are children, an increase of 6 percent. Monthly checking of information collected from emergency programs indicates both of these numbers have increased. Almost half of the seniors using emergency food programs reported having to choose between buying food and paying for medical care or medicine. 65 percent of households had monthly incomes of less than $1,000.

In November of 2009 USDA issued its annual report on food security showing Oklahoma as the fourth hungriest state in the nation with 5.9 percent of our population classified as having very low food security. Oklahoma ranked sixth in food insecurity with 14 percent of the state’s residents lacking money for food at times during the year. USDA information was collected at the end of 2008.

The latest report, using information collected most recently and from the largest sample, is the Food Research and Action Center’s (FRAC) Food Hardship: A Closer Look at Hunger. This report revealed that 22.2 percent of Oklahomans did not have enough money to buy the food that their families needed. According to the report Tulsa has the 21st and Oklahoma City the 12th highest rate of food hardship among the 100 largest metropolitan areas. Congressional District 2, covering most of Eastern Oklahoma has a food hardship rate of 25.4 percent, making it the 32nd highest district in the nation.

The root of hunger and food insecurity in Oklahoma is income and not having the resources to meet basic needs. Food, regardless of the body’s need for wholesome, nutritious energy to live a healthy productive life, is the first basic need to go when money is tight.

I fear it is about to get harder. Cuts in the current state budget, particularly in senior nutrition programs, resulted in requests to the two food banks in the state to make up the loss of food because of the loss of state funds to these programs. Emergency food programs that serve cooked meals have been asked to take on new clients with the closing or reduced hours of state funded senior nutrition sites. Now it is possible that the next fiscal year’s budget will require state agencies to take an 8 to 12 percent cut (on top of this year’s cuts). So far, most emergency programs have been able to step up to the challenge when it involves food. How much more they can do is a question to be answered.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily the opinions 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.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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