Oh, the holidays -- peace on earth, goodwill to all.
Don't you just want to belt out "there's no place like home for the holidays" as our 76-year-old, United States Sen. Jim Inhofe throws a ring-tailed conniption over what Tulsa calls its annual December parade?
Or wouldn't you just love to croon "Silent Night" as the incorrigibles over-populating the state House of Representatives threaten to oust incoming Speaker-elect Kris Steele because he isn't -- gasp! -- conservative enough?
These elected "leaders" better watch out: Their stockings could be stuffed with lumps of coal.
Wouldn't it be refreshing -- and truly reflective of the holidays -- if Oklahoma's leadership focused on a different north star this season, one that really deserves attention: food insecurity?
While far too many of our elected leaders are preoccupied with silly political games, one in five Oklahoma children goes to bed hungry.
Not one in five in Somalia. Or Sudan. Or even Appalachia.
Gov.-elect Mary Fallin gets it. She launched a month-long food drive, leading up to her Jan. 10 inauguration, to raise awareness about Oklahoma's hunger problem. There are coordinators in all 77 counties, helping collect non-perishable food items to stock local pantries.
"We want to start out by highlighting the caring spirit of our state," says Fallin. "Now more than ever we need that spirit of generosity."
Oh, sure, some will roll their eyes and dismiss this as a phony public relations gambit -- a few crumbs for the proletariat amid the glitzy inaugural festivities, replete with furs and pearls and Lexuses.
Why be so cynical -- especially during the holidays? It's a wonderful thing the governor-elect is doing. Food insecurity isn't a Republican-Democratic, conservative-liberal issue. It's an Oklahoma issue.
Perhaps many families and individuals on the brink will be helped. At the very least, it indicates Fallin hasn't forgotten her middle-class, Tecumseh roots. It also suggests she is aware many Oklahomans are hurting -- more than 600,000 are now receiving food stamps, up nearly 50 percent in three years.
Isn't it obvious that it's more difficult to help a state mired in poverty reach its potential?
Imagine, for example, how this affects children attempting to learn at school. Conventional wisdom is that public schools are failing our children. Really? Could it be that far too many of our children can't focus as keenly on academics because they're too busy listening to their stomachs growl? The numbers suggest a serious problem: Half the children in Oklahoma's schools receive free or reduced lunches.
Our two major universities may be in the top 15 when it comes to football, but our state owns a dubious ranking that is our collective shame: We are one of 13 states with above average food insecurity -- defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as meaning that we have an above-average number of households without "access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all" its members.
Food insecurity leads to diet-related chronic health problems, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Thus, Oklahoma is 46th nationally in overall health, according to the United Health Foundation -- and we're dead last in fruit and vegetable consumption.
Yet our elected leaders are more concerned that an imaginary War on Christmas is to blame for the Tulsa parade's re-christening, that Sharia law could become a menace in the Oklahoma legal system (though there's never been a single case of it being invoked) and that we've fallen behind Arizona when it comes to hammering undocumented immigrants.
It's bad enough that some of our elected leaders embarrass us with such overheated rhetoric -- Oklahoma is all-too-often the butt of jokes worldwide, caricaturing us as a bunch of dense, spiteful hicks. Where it really hurts our state is in recruiting the kinds of jobs that can help break the cycle of poverty that leaves so many families scrambling for their next meal.
Does Oklahoma really need a more punitive, Arizona-style immigration law?
Ask Arizona. It's estimated the law that would allow police to demand papers from anyone who looked foreign already has cost the state an estimated $141 million in lost meeting and convention business since it was signed into law in April.
Wouldn't it be more Christian -- especially as the vast majority in our state celebrate Christ's birth -- to focus our attention and resources on the least among us? And to demand our elected leaders do so as well.
At least one group, the Oklahoma Health Equity Campaign (OHEC), hopes to encourage our lawmakers to pursue "policies that could reduce the food insecurity of Oklahomans," according to chairman Jeff Hamilton, a former state representative who now serves as a minister at Oklahoma City's First Christian Church.
One of the major problems facing Oklahoma is that 32 of the state's 77 counties -- all rural -- are classified as "food deserts," -- meaning at least 25 percent of the population lives 10 miles or more from a supermarket or supercenter that offers healthier and more varied food choices.
There are similar problems, though, in urban areas, particularly for the disadvantaged who don't have ready access to transportation. Think, in particular, North Tulsa and its grocery woes.
The OHEC suggests state leaders pursue policies that encourage grocers to locate in underserved areas -- in other words, to take steps to help them be more economically viable. It also urges that more farmers markets be equipped to accept payments from invididuals on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC) and senior programs.
Another possible step: The OHEC recommends state lawmakers eliminate the state sales tax on fruits and vegetables, hopefully making nutritious foods more affordable.
Oklahomans are among the most generous folks anywhere. When the call goes out, donations typically flood in. My wife and I spent several hours recently helping pack emergency food boxes at the local food bank. We've written checks to several shelters. I have no doubt you've done as much, and probably more.
After all, it's not just what's under our tree that counts. Our grandstanding elected leaders would do well to remember that.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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