POSTED ON DECEMBER 22, 2010:
The Face of Hunger
Oklahoma's increasingly hungry population
At times, Tulsa can appear picturesque. Take a stroll through beautiful Woodward Park, a tour through Philbrook Museum or maybe a ride down the artsy and eclectic Brookside.
It's almost Stepford in appearance. Look a little deeper and the elegant architecture or beautiful parks are overshadowed by Oklahoma's hungry in the wake of a failing economy.
"In Oklahoma, the USDA has rated us #4 in hunger of all the states," said Cindy Stevens, director of marketing and communications for the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma. "We are experiencing about a 40% increase in people needing help at food pantries across the state and that's happened since 2008."
Hunger is no longer just a plague of the homeless but it is alive and thriving in neighborhoods throughout state. It is living next door and many don't recognize it.
"We've discovered that folks don't realize how serious the problem is in our state," said Sara Waggoner, executive director the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma. "The reality of it right now is that more and more people are falling into the food insecure category because of the economy."
The changing reality of hunger includes hard working families where the breadwinner has lost their job, been laid off or is receiving fewer hours or wages. Looking for help after years of being capable of supplying for oneself and family can be a hard pill to swallow.
"The face of hunger is not the stereotype anymore," said Tanya Moore, social services coordinator for Iron Gate. "It's the family across the street, the people you work with, the people you go to the bank and talk to, its not just, what as Tulsans, we've come to believe are the homeless that hang out down by the library."
Children are caught in the undertow of this trend. Teachers are seeing students who eat free breakfast and lunch during the week and not have another substantial meal until school starts again on Monday morning.
Take heart Tulsa, there are kind souls throughout the city and beyond who take it upon themselves everyday to make sure that these downtrodden are lifted up out of the mire. These individuals not only provide food for the growing number of Oklahomans that would otherwise go hungry but they provide a listening ear, a comforting hug and a word of hope.
At the forefront of this battle is the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma. Operating out of a 78,000 square foot warehouse, CFBEO distributed more than 13.5 million pounds of food last year to agencies that directly work with Oklahoma's hungry.
In a building resembling a Sam's Warehouse, with shelves stock piled full of food, it would be easy to assume that such a remarkable entity would be able to supply enough goods for all of Tulsa without running out. That simply isn't the case.
"The need has been so great lately that if we did not get another donation from this point on," said Stevens, "it would be empty in less than 3 months."
In 2005, CFBEO decided to address their largest portion of direct recipients by starting the Food for Kids Backpack Program.
Many families in Tulsa rely heavily on the free lunch program in schools and during the weekend, they can struggle with just providing the basics for their children.
"There is not one elementary program in Tulsa County that we don't have that program in," said Waggoner. "There are at least 25 kids and in some cases it goes up to 100 in every elementary where teachers are pretty sure kids aren't getting what they need."
CFBEO isn't able to accomplish their mission alone. Every year thousands of volunteers provide the hands and the feet for the food bank. Anyone over the age of eight is encouraged to sort food or stuff backpacks.
Students looking for volunteer hours or retirees that need to find fulfillment in giving back to the community can donate as many hours as they are willing.
Walter Trapp, one of the many volunteers at CFBEO, devotes a minimum of 3 days per week to the cause.
"I'm a depression kid, so I've seen it first hand," said Trapp. "This gives me a purpose and something I can be proud of."
Even though the Great Depression occurred nearly 80 years ago, the last two years in American history have some definite resemblances.
While the food bank does have some off-site direct feeding programs, most of their efforts go toward getting the food to their 450 partner programs. These agencies, such as John 3:16, Iron Gate, Neighbors Along the Line, Tulsa Dream Center and even Owasso's Standing in the Gap take to the streets and stare the hunger right in the eye.
Visiting any of these food pantries is no different than taking a trip to the grocery store. There are single men and women, moms and dads with several kids in tow, young teens and elderly.
One by one, the would-be hungry of Tulsa wait in lines at these agencies and graciously thank the many volunteers handing out plates of spaghetti and meatballs or bagging canned goods and the week's worth of milk and eggs. In an environment that stereotypically devalues respect, onlookers can watch as young men motion for grandmothers and children to go ahead in the food line despite their own stomach pangs.
Most surprisingly at any of these locations, it isn't a sob-fest or a woe-is-me atmosphere but instead, recipients are happy to see friends and share a meal.
The changing face of hunger is no respecter of age or socioeconomic background. People who never imagined they would need help are now at the doorsteps of pantries and outreach programs around the city.
"Imagine yourself one day, everything is on the up and up, job is going well, kids are acting good and the family's ok," said Bernadette Mixon, John 3:16 recipient. "Then all the sudden everything is taken away from you economically. It's just been hard getting back from where I actually was when I was laid off my job."
Even areas that are thought to be upper or middle-class parts of town have felt the pangs of hunger. Standing in the Gap, a food pantry for Owasso, services hundreds of individuals each month.
"You'll find that people don't realize that when others have minimal healthcare, a minimum wage job they're trying to maintain and all of a sudden something happens on the employment side or a medical issue and there is an extra expense," said Dusty Smith of Standing in the Gap, "almost instantaneously they find themselves in an emergency situation."
Though all of this can seem overwhelming, there is hope. The situation would be increasingly more difficult to fight if these agencies didn't exist and with a growing awareness to the problem, more Tulsan's are taking it upon themselves to take care of their own. Still, awareness is key.
"Get involved," said Shannon Chambers, program director of Neighbors Along the Line. "It's an issue that if people knew about it, we could potentially resolve it."
No, there is no quick fix but in a community that comes together year after year for fundraising events and more, there is no reason individuals or families need to go one more night without a substantial meal.
"There isn't a Band-Aid fix," said Moore of Iron Gate. "What we've found is holistic approaches work. The ability to find jobs, educational levels, providing a sense of structure and making sure the support structures are there."
The goal is not simply to provide a meal but ultimately, to provide a way for a dad to bring home enough income so that a child doesn't have to lug backpacks of food in on Friday afternoons or make a way so that teens without a high school diploma have access to the study tools required for a GED.
Several of these agencies provide tools such as literacy programs and job search assistance. The ultimate goal is self-sufficiency.
"We're feeding them fish but we're attempting to teach them how to fish," said Chambers, "so they can sustain themselves."
While each of these facilities provide meals and groceries to those in need, maybe the true gift is simply an outstretched hand and a kind word that lifts the spirit.
Most of these recipients don't want a handout but they've come to a place in life where the options are quickly dissipating. When pressures come down, these agencies provide a strong shoulder to lean on with no strings attached.
"The Iron Gate feeds the hungry and feeds the soul," said TK, a local Iron Gate recipient. "It gives us hope each day knowing you got a place to come eat, meet your friends and aggravate Ernest."
Ernest Dixon, operation manager of Iron Gate, greets individuals at the Iron Gate as if he is reunited with a close brother or sister everyday and those that frequent the gate return the favor with hugs and a friendly jab or two.
The laughter and friendly faces seem to be as good a medicine and as much a need as the hot meals served daily or the bags of groceries.
A common misconception is that pride and dignity are non-issues for those who attend food banks or seek the help of such agencies. The reality is that there are more people who have never needed these services facing the logistics of paying the mortgage or eating for the day.
Dignity is often viewed as a human right and necessity and it rarely seen as dispensable. So as Oklahoma looks to lend a helping hand, a gentle spirit needs to accompany it.
"We want people to feel loved, accepted and forgiven," said Pastor Wendell Hope of Tulsa Dream Center. "They're not just a number to us, we treat them with dignity and we handle them with love and care."
Each of these facilities values the people who walk through the doors.
"Some of them are embarrassed, some are brought to tears because they feel like their dignity is stripped away from them," said Chambers. "That's why we're here. We understand that but that doesn't define you as a person if you need help."
With all of the requests during the holiday season, it is easy to become overwhelmed. While the face of hunger has changed in Tulsa, there is an opportunity to change the face of charity.
The holidays are a time of giving and yes, children need to have that meager Christmas gift under the tree or a family needs that sparkle of hope in a Thanksgiving turkey, but just because the New Year festivities come and go, doesn't mean the need does.
"Stop, take time, look and do what you can for the problems you can see because when you're going by at 60 mph on the highway, you can't see it," said Iron Gate recipient and father of 8, Mark. "I'm an everyday person but we're getting by. We live day to day. Everyday is different. Sometimes there's work and sometimes there's not."
While there still are those who choose to pursue handouts or purposely bypass job opportunities, there is legitimate need out there and it shouldn't be overlooked because some choose to take advantage of the system.
Bleeding hearts and helping hands looking for ways to alleviate the burden of hungry Oklahoma can visit any of the websites pertaining to the food pantries mentioned. Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma is always in need of willing individuals and contact information can be found on their website.
Tulsa may, at times, look like an epicenter for culture and sophistication but under bridges, across the river or even in nicely groomed middle-class backyards, people are drowning in financial crisis and looking for ways to ease the stress.
Each of these food pantries and the CFBEO are assets to Tulsa and the surrounding communities, and their need for volunteers and donations is constant.
For those needing assistance, call 211 for more information about services available.
Left, above: Volunteers and participants at Iron Gate.
Volunteers at Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma.
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