Camille Landry is a writer, activist, and social justice advocate who lives in Oklahoma City. This post is part of our “Neglected Oklahoma” series, which tells the stories of Oklahomans in situations where the basic necessities of life are hard to come by. These are real people and their stories are true (names have been changed to protect privacy).
Hunger is all around me:
At a pool in a suburban park on a steamy Oklahoma summer afternoon: “I used to love summer,” one mom said, “but I’ll be glad when school starts.” “Tired of having them underfoot already?” I asked. “Not really. It’s just a struggle to feed them when school is out. They get breakfast and lunch at school. In the summer I have to pay for child care while I work, plus the two extra meals each day. I can’t scrimp on daycare so I have to cut back on food.”
In the doctor’s waiting room: The grandmother of my daughter’s best friend, a retired state worker, tells me, “I’ve got diabetes and my pressure is high and I know the doctor’s going to give me heck about what I’ve been eating. My money just doesn’t go far enough. I stretch out my meals with potatoes, bread, noodles. Otherwise I can’t afford to eat. I know it’s not the best thing, but what else can I do?”
At my dad’s best friend’s home: Will and my dad were Marines who served in Korea. They loved to fish and build things. He has the best lawn on the block. He mows his neighbors’ lawns, feeds a gaggle of stray cats, picks up trash on the street and has a kind word for everyone. My dad is gone but I visit Will whenever I’m in the neighborhood. He was on his front porch when I drove up. The American flag and Marine Corps insignia flew a pole in his yard. “What’re you doing out here in this heat?” I asked. “I’m not turning on the A/C. Can’t pay the both the electric company and the grocery store.”
At a friend’s daughter’s birthday party: It was great to catch up with these “kids,” now all grown up. Two of the young women talked about their struggle making ends meet. Both are students, both work two jobs. They struggled to pay bills, tuition, buy books – and eat. One of them joked, “I’m gonna publish my cookbook: “1000 Ways to Cook Ramen.” “What’re you gonna do with your royalties?” I asked. “I’m going to buy all the fruit in the store and eat until I’m full,” she said. “And I’ll never buy another pack of ten-cent noodles as long as I live.”
In the women’s room at work: Tonya leans over the sink. She looks sick. “Are you okay?” I asked. “I’ll be all right. I’m just kinda hungry.” Tonya works for the janitorial service that contracts to clean my office. Her employer forced her to work overtime, to avoid having to hire another worker. The extra income placed her just above the limit for SNAP benefits two months in a row, so she stopped receiving food stamps. The loss of food benefits was not compensated for by the additional income from overtime. “We had spaghetti last night but I don’t have any more food and there were no leftovers to bring for lunch,” she told me. Tonya is raising a 3-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old nephew. “That boy eats like there’s no tomorrow! I don’t know what I’m going to do.” I brought her a sandwich and the cafeteria manager at work loaded her up on leftovers from lunch, which would get her through at least a couple of days. Jana is looking for a second job. MIT’s Living Wage Calculator estimates total monthly food costs for one adult and two children at $536. That’s almost two weeks of Tonya’s take-home pay.
In my own kitchen: “Please tell Whitney to go home, it’s time for dinner.” “But Mama, I don’t think she has any food at home. She said her mom is still at work and there’s nothing to eat at her house.” A half hour later we sat down to dinner with Whitney and her brother. “We ate corn flakes for dinner last night,” they said, “and bread and sugar for breakfast.” We walked the kids home after dinner and met their mom, who was just getting home from work. “Thank you for inviting my kids to dinner.” She said they run out of food, especially at the end of the month. She gets $231 in SNAP benefits. “It helps but it’s definitely not a month’s worth of food. I never know ahead of time how many hours I’ll get to work in a week so it is really hard to budget.”
“It is a particularly cruel irony that in rural Oklahoma, where the wheat waves, the pecans drop and the cattle fatten in what Woody Guthrie called ‘pastures of plenty,’ people are not eating well,” reports the Kerr Foundation. “Oklahoma has the highest rate in the nation of food insecurity with hunger.”
Hunger is all around us. Sometimes it wears a very familiar face.
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