Tara Grigson is an OK Policy intern. She is a psychology and Spanish major at the University of Tulsa and previously worked as a Mission Impact Intern at YWCA Tulsa.

school lunchOklahoma is nearly the worst in the nation for food insecurity: approximately 1 in 4 Oklahoma children do not have consistent access to nutritious food in their homes for any number or combination of reasons, from low family incomes to living in food deserts with inadequate transportation. During the school year, the USDA’s school meals program help make sure these kids have access to affordable, nutritious food. In the 2014-2015 school year, nearly 300,000 Oklahoma children enrolled in public schools relied on school-provided lunches during the school year. However, when school lets out for summer, family paychecks don’t expand to accommodate up to 10 meals per child per week, leaving too many children hungry. 

The USDA’s Summer Nutrition Programs are designed to fill this void. The Summer Food Service Programs (SFSP) allow organizations outside of schools (like churches or other community organizations) to receive federal funding for supplying breakfast or lunch to low-income children. Even though Oklahoma’s need for programs to feed hungry children is among the highest in the US, our participation in these summer meal programs is lower than every other state and the District of Columbia. Nationwide in July of 2015, 15.8 out of every 100 children who typically received lunch during the school year accessed food from Summer Nutrition Programs. In Oklahoma, we fed just 6.4 kids per every 100 who were fed during the school year.

A unique combination of geographic and economic factors lead to Oklahoma’s exceptionally low performance in the summer food program. As of 2015, roughly 1 in 3 Oklahomans lived in a rural area. Oklahoma’s percentage of children living in poverty is the 15th highest nationwide. In short, Oklahoma is both more rural and more impoverished than most states.

States that are similarly rural do manage to outperform Oklahoma, but these states tend to have fewer overall residents and thus smaller demand for summer food programs. Wyoming is heavily rural but dramatically outperforms Oklahoma in summer feeding, ranking 9th nationwide – but Oklahoma has more than 200,000 children leaving in poverty, 10 times Wyoming’s 17,000. Of the 10 highest-performing states in July 2014, only New York and Maryland served more than 200,000 lunches on an average day during the school year, while Oklahoma serves around 300,000. Twenty-three percent of children in New York live in poverty, compared to 22 percent of Oklahoma children. However, New York and Oklahoma have very different concentrations of people – just 12.13 percent of New Yorkers live in rural areas, compared to 33.76 percent of Oklahomans.

The Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma is one of the state’s two largest operators of summer feeding programs.  The food bank’s executive director Eileen Bradshaw says sometimes children are not physically able to reach the food bank’s sites. Because of the requirement that meals be consumed on-site, children who need both breakfast and lunch need to make two trips per day to access their meals. “The weather is extreme,” Bradshaw said. “Kids are walking and it’s 110 degrees. Sometimes there has been a recent violent crime in the neighborhood. Maybe a bologna sandwich at home is less frightening than physical peril.”

Fortunately, some fixes may be on the horizon. A pilot program that adds additional money to SNAP and WIC recipients’ accounts is helping parents buy more nutritious foods. If families receive only $60 more a month during the summer, they are able to improve their children’s access to nutritious foods. Of the eight states that participated in the pilot, six received additional federal grant funding to continue the program for this summer. In addition, relaxing the congregate feeding requirement would allow participating children to take food for another meal or for siblings home with them.  

When children don’t have proper nutrition, their physical and mental growth can be disrupted. That’s a surefire way to perpetuate generational cycles of poverty. A perfect storm of geography and poverty has driven access to summer meals down, but solutions are at hand. We owe it to all of Oklahoma’s children to work to promote their healthy development.