POSTED ON NOVEMBER 28, 2007:
Brother, Could You Spare a Turkey?
High food costs almost meant a shortage of holiday birds for the less fortunate
Feast for All. "It is unconscionable for us to sit back in our plenty during the holidays when other people are going hungry," said Rev. Steve Whitaker, executive director of Tulsa's John 3:16 Mission.
"It is unconscionable for us to sit back in our plenty during the holidays when other people are going hungry," said the Rev. Steve Whitaker, executive director of Tulsa's John 3:16 Mission.
He told UTW that the Mission usually feeds about 5,000 families at Thanksgiving but, at the time of the interview, they only had enough turkeys to feed around 3,500.
At about a turkey per family, Whitaker said the Mission needed another 1,500 birds to avoid having to turn thousands of hungry people and their children away.
Thanks to the quick response of thousands of generous Tulsans, though, they didn't have to.
"We put out a last-minute, last-ditch media blitz," Whitaker said, by calling and e-mailing local media outlets in the days before Thanksgiving, which Tulsans heeded in droves.
He said the Mission wound up giving 5,248 turkeys to struggling families.
"We actually exceeded our goals. It was an amazing outpouring of compassion, as far as I'm concerned," said Whitaker.
He said the kinds of people who benefited from the efforts of the John 3:16 Mission and its contributors fell into two categories: the homeless and those at risk for being homeless, who had what Whitaker and others called "food insecurity."
"A person who doesn't have enough money to make it through the month will often cut back on meals--instead of having three meals a day, they might have only one or two," he said.
"When events like Thanksgiving come around, they don't have enough money to put together a Thanksgiving meal for their families," Whitaker added.
That's where the compassion of the folks at John 3:16 Mission and the rest of Tulsa come in, he said.
"Tulsans are very generous. They always step up when there's a need," Whitaker said.
He said he couldn't offer any definite answer for why Tulsans needed that extra, last-minute nudge this year, but guessed that a number of different factors have been at work to diminish the usual charitable turnout.
"Charitable dollars are absorbed in things like $3 gasoline," Whitaker said.
Along with his efforts to keep vulnerable Tulsans from going hungry, the minister also serves as one of the experts on the recently created state Task Force on Hunger, created by a bill co-sponsored by state Rep. Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, and Sen. Andrew Rice, D-Oklahoma City.
Whitaker said an issue under discussion by the panel is the fact that food commodity prices are up 5.1 percent this year, due to the higher demand for corn for the production of ethanol.
"Corn is used in virtually every food product," Whitaker said, from providing the high-fructose corn syrup in ketchup to its use as feed for a certain festive, flightless bird.
So, food costs are up, so it's harder for people to buy their own food and contribute to charities like the John 3:16 Mission.
It also contributes to Oklahoma's comparatively high rate of food insecurity.
Oklahoma's distinction as the seventh most "food insecure" state in the nation has been another issue under discussion by the task force.
The predicament was exacerbated in north Tulsa with the recent closing of the Albertson's grocery store.
Those families that were already struggling to buy enough food, but are fortunate enough to have cars, now have to travel farther to get that food, thereby cutting into their already tight grocery budget by using up more gas.
Many of those without cars, as well as many with them, depend on the kindness of Whitaker and others to get by.
"Circumstances aren't getting any better," the minister said.
Despite the bleak circumstances, Whitaker was still optimistic about the holiday season.
"It's one of those 'by faith' situations," he said prior to the last-minute turkey outpouring.
"We're hoping and praying that food will come in so we don't have to turn people away," he added.
During the discussion with UTW, Whitaker was awaiting the arrival of 300 frozen turkeys donated by the Crowe and Dunlevy law firm (which he included in his 3,500 count).
He said the Oklahoma Regional Food Bank contributed 500, selling them to the Mission at a scant 50-cents per pound.
Whitaker said the Mission also bought about 1,500 from Sam's Club at a dirt-cheap price.
Also, the Under the Sun Garden Center is running a turkey drive by matching every frozen turkey delivered by private citizens to their locations at 52nd and Harvard or at 91st and Sheridan.
After the "media blitz," Whitaker said individual Tulsans came in droves to the Mission, dropping off turkeys as they darted around town making preparations for their own festivities.
While Thanksgiving has come and gone and the John 3:16 Mission managed to exceed its goals for turkey distribution, Christmas is still just around the corner, and Whitaker said they have to start their food collection efforts anew.
Since there was a shortage up until the day before Thanksgiving, the minister said there's likely to be one leading up to Christmas as well, and thousands of families with their children might be turned away without a Christmas meal.
Invariably, for every Thanksgiving or Christmas during the past 18 years he's served at the John 3:16 Mission, Whitaker said, "We'll reach the point where we run out of food before we run out of people."
Normally, though, the gap between those two points isn't nearly as wide as their food inventories indicate they'll be this year, so the minister is asking Tulsans to pitch in.
In the off-chance that Tulsans' generosity overflows into an abundance of turkeys, Whitaker said they would be used for the Mission's food distribution to the thousands served on a daily basis.
"I want to remind them that these are fellow Tulsans," he said.
"Please help us, or some other worthwhile organization," Whitaker added.
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