Hunger doesn't take a holiday

Recently I had the pleasure of being invited by the Oklahoma Food Security Committee to give a presentation on funding for food and nutrition programs in the stimulus bill.  The meeting featured a superb overview from Liz Tate of the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma on food insecurity in Oklahoma and the programs that help to supplement the food needs of individuals and families (you can also read the 2007 report of the Oklahoma Task Force on Hunger). Food insecurity – defined as “limited or uncertain unavailability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods” – affected more than one in eight Oklahomans in 2007. Oklahoma’s food insecurity rate of 13.0 percent is significantly above the national average of 11.1 percent.

The economic downturn is creating added pressures on family food budgets and leading to unprecedented demands on both private charities and public programs for food assistance. As we’ve noted in our monthly Numbers You Need bulletins, participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) has increased every month over the past year and has now reached an all-time high, with 450,000 Oklahomans having received SNAP benefits in March 2009. The Committee was reminded that programs like SNAP not only serve a social welfare role, but also have a significant impact on Oklahoma businesses and communities by providing families the resources to buy food at local grocery stores. SNAP payments in Oklahoma exceeded $48 million in the month of March; since then, the stimulus bill provided a 13.5 increase in monthly SNAP benefits.

Children are especially affected by hunger issues, and several programs focus on trying to ensure that children in economically disadvantaged families are adequately fed. The largest is the free and reduced-price school lunch program, which provides meals to children in families with income up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Just under 425,000 Oklahoma school children participated in the program in FY 2008, while just under 200,000 participated in the school breakfast program.

What happens, though, when school lets out? During the school year, an increasing number of schools, in conjunction with the state’s two regional food banks and other charities, operate weekend feeding programs that sends kids home from school on Friday afternoons with a backpack of food.  During the summer months, however, the situation becomes most worrisome. The federal government and State Department of Education administer the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which resembles the school lunch and school breakfast programs in making meals available to kids in low-income families. In 2008, the program served an average of just 11,686 children each day in its peak month of July, or only 1 in 36 children served by the School Lunch program.

The challenge is getting enough sponsors and sites to operate summer feeding programs, and getting the kids to the participating sites to be fed. Sites can be schools, churches, or non-profit organizations running summer programs for children and youth.  Sponsors are reimbursed on a per-meal basis, but there is no funding for transportation, and most school districts, especially in rural areas, choose not to participate in the program because they don’t have enough participating children to cover their costs. (There were 125 SFSP sponsors in the state of Oklahoma 2008 according to this list from the Department of Education; the list doesn’t tell us how many sites were operated by each sponsor).

The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma is thinking hard about how to get more sites involved and children served in the parts of the state they cover. Their efforts are currently focused on providing meals in low income areas where summer food is not offered by school districts. Last summer, the Regional Food Bank served 1800 children in central and western Oklahoma. On the worklist for the coming year is a summer feeding toolkit, which will make it easier and more financially feasible for small schools, particularly those in rural areas, to operate their own summer meal programs. The food bank is looking at planning menus, bulk purchasing food, publicizing food service sites, and providing technical assistance to schools as strategies to get more sites and more kids involved.

The Food Research Action Center (FRAC), a national anti-hunger advocacy group, has developed recommendations for the Summer Food Services Program, along with other federal nutrition programs. They call for reimbursement rates to be restored to 1996 funding levels, when rates were cut 10 percent, and additional funding for outreach and to cover transportation costs. But they also call on Congress and the Administration to “streamline the various child nutrition programs to enable schools, local government agencies, and non-profits to feed children 365 days a year through one seamless child nutrition program”:

The current family paper application process requires a tremendous amount of administrative work by schools and parents, and keeps some low-income families from participating in the program. Congress should begin a process of changing this outdated process. A good place to begin is with large school districts serving many high poverty areas.

This approach is critical. Hunger and inadequate nutrition are year-round problems that are not tied to the school schedule. Our public programs, with the active involvement of community-based organizations and faith groups committed to keeping children adequately fed, need to keep developing more creative, effective ways to rise to the challenge.


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.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.