This fall, the US Department of Agriculture released its annual report on household food security, which measures the share of households who don’t have enough food to lead an active, healthy life in the last year. For the three-year period from 2014-16, an average of more than 1 in 7 Oklahoma households, or 15.2 percent of the population, experienced food insecurity, the 8th-highest rate in the nation, tied with Indiana.
But what does this mean for Oklahoma? Given Oklahoma’s population of 3.92 million, and assuming that households experiencing food insecurity are the same size as the average of all households, this means 595,000 Oklahomans live in households that struggle with basic access to adequate food.
Now imagine that on a Saturday afternoon this fall, everyone who experienced food insecurity in Oklahoma were all invited down to Norman and Stillwater to attend football games.
Well, we’d need a lot of buses, and everyone would have to take turns. The number of Oklahomans at risk of hunger could fill, four times over, OU’s Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium (capacity: 86,112) and OSU’s Boone Pickens Stadium (capacity: 56,790) – with enough people left over to nearly fill TU’s H.A. Chapman Stadium (capacity: 30,000).
Food insecurity has serious consequences. Hunger costs Oklahoma over $1.4 billion each year through increased illness and decreased academic achievement alone, according to Hunger Free Oklahoma. Some groups, like families with children, seniors, and people with disabilities, are at higher risk for food insecurity and particularly vulnerable to related or exacerbated health issues as a result.
So food insecurity is a big problem in Oklahoma – and soon, it could get worse. The recently-passed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is projected to add $1.4 trillion to the deficit over the next decade, which could be used as justification by Congressional Republicans to slash Medicaid, Medicare, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) and other important safety net programs in the coming months. Paring back access to basic medical care will put further strain on Oklahoma household budgets, forcing more families to choose between food and housing costs, medical care, and other expenses. In addition, federal agencies have signaled that they’re open to radical, previously disallowed changes to food assistance programs at the state level that could result in families losing access to needed help.
Although private charities will certainly try, they simply aren’t capable of meeting the resulting need. Every year, Oklahoma’s food banks give away record amounts of food – but private charity only makes up about 7 percent of total food assistance in Oklahoma, and charitable food assistance is intended as a rapid response to crisis, not a support while a wage earner finds a new job or recovers from illness. In short, charity can’t pick up the slack when the safety net erodes.
To find out ways to help fight hunger and food insecurity in Oklahoma, contact the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma or the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. You can also learn about the ways that Hunger Free Oklahoma is working to ensure all Oklahomans have access to affordable, nutritious food. Finally, please call your members of Congress to ask them to protect and strengthen nutritional assistance in the new year. After all, hunger doesn’t take a holiday.