OK Policy had the pleasure of meeting with Sara Amberg recently, an advocate for the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma (CFBEO). Food banks across the state, including the CFBEO and the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and its affiliates, work tirelessly to feed and inspire families facing food insecurity. Food insecurity – defined as “limited or uncertain unavailability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods” – affects thousands of Oklahomans. One in seven Oklahoma households, or 14 percent were food insecure in 2008; the national average is 12.2 percent.
The economic downturn continues to strain family food budgets and increase demand on both private charities and public programs for food assistance. Participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) increased by 44.9 percent between February 2008 and February 2011, adding 187,506 participants. Programs like SNAP not only serve a social welfare role by providing families with food, they also have a significant impact on Oklahoma businesses, pumping millions of dollars each month directly into the grocers, markets, and convenient stores of local economies.
Hunger issues especially affect children, 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. In FY ’10, 449,213 Oklahoma school children participated in the program, while 218,249 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 2010, the program served an average of just 11,665 children each day in its peak month of July, or only about 1 in 38 children served when school is in session. Low enrollment in SFSP is a persistent problem and the state has seen almost no increase in the program in recent years.
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. This summer, 372 SFSP sites will be serving meals to kids across the state of Oklahoma, according to this list from the Department of Education.
The Food Research Action Center (FRAC), a national anti-hunger advocacy group, recommends several changes to the SFSP in their annual Summer Nutrition Hardship Report. One recommendation is 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. Improving access to summer nutrition programs for kids 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.