Restaurants are reopening, traffic is buzzing again and gatherings are back on, but hunger remains a problem for many Tulsans suffering lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thanks to complex coordination across multiple community organizations, individuals and families in need of immediate food assistance still have places to turn.
“In these times, eating healthy is even more important,” Katie Plohocky said.
Plohocky is the executive director of Healthy Community Store Initiative, better known as R&G Family Grocers, which has been orchestrating the receipt and dissemination of tens of thousands of pounds of fresh produce and dry goods to local churches for distribution to those in need since the pandemic hit its stride in early spring.
The COVID-19 relief effort is funded through the George Kaiser Family Foundation and Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, and made possible through collaboration with community partners, like the Tulsa Farmers Market and Hunger Free Oklahoma, as well as large scale manufacturers.
Plohocky said R&G’s warehouse has been undergoing a cycle reminiscent of the movie “Groundhog Day” since the program began in late March. It begins each week chock-full of food ready to be divided, bagged and distributed, but by Friday it’s empty, and it’s time to “do it again,” she said.
Each week at R&G actually begins three to four weeks prior, Plohocky said, as that’s the timeline for manufacturers struggling with an out-of-whack supply chain. Plohocky said the process is now leveling out but still “a little wonky.”
“At one point, we were re-packaging 900 pounds of peanut butter,” Plohocky said, chuckling.
Then only able to acquire goods in bulk, volunteers, who have since put in at least 1,000 hours of service, scraped the nut butter into 16-ounce to-go containers, Plohocky said, as well as repackaged other bulk goods, like pasta and rice, for distribution. Now, the organization is able to purchase products packaged for more individual sales.
This week, they expect to pass along 1,800 bags, or 36,000 pounds of groceries, to local churches for distribution.
Plohocky said Tuesday the program was funded at least through the end of July, but there’s discussion about continuing through August because “we don’t see the need going away.”
First Baptist Church North Tulsa Deacon Darrell Walker, who oversees his church’s partnership with the program, said he sees that need met and returned with gratitude every week.
“Oh, yes — we see tears,” he told the Tulsa World. “We don’t ever have anything left over.”
FBC North Tulsa is one of about 15 churches scattered across north, east, south and west Tulsa participating in the program, which Walker said benefits anyone in the community who needs food.
Each church partner has varying pick-up dates and times, and a list of participating organizations is available at tulsarealgoodfood.org/covid19.
For FBC North Tulsa, a successful start passing out 60 bags of produce and dry goods, or offerings, as Walker calls them, has been upped to volunteers passing out enough for 180 families.
Their pickup is drive-through, beginning at 5:30 p.m. every Wednesday through July 29 at the church, 1414 N. Greenwood Ave. With enough volunteers to work six cars at a time, Walker said the pass-out is usually finished in about 45 minutes.
But Walker’s heart is with those who aren’t able to make the drive to pick up food.
Transportation is a common barrier, and Walker said many families come through the line on behalf of others who couldn’t make the drive.
He’s even seen physicians come through for their patients, he said.
Volunteers also dedicate time and bags for the senior citizen complexes the church serves.
About a month into the operation, Walker said Hunger Free Oklahoma offered some frozen meals prepared by local restaurant workers to pass out to families. Tomorrow, he expects to pass out more than 1,000.
Families get a bag of fresh produce, a bag of dry goods and a bag of frozen meals; usually five to 10 of them.
“Some of them have that many people in their families,” he said. “So it gets them through one or two days.“
The frozen meals are provided through Hunger Free Oklahoma’s Tulsa Kitchens Unite program, which quickly bridged the gap between restaurant workers who needed work and people who needed food when businesses shuttered in the pandemic.
Fully funded for 12 weeks, the program produced 336,900 meals through more than 19,400 work hours in 23 partner kitchens, according to numbers the organization released. And through 4,400 volunteer hours, meals were distributed at 34 Tulsa Public Schools, two Union Public Schools and 19 community partner organizations.
The full-scale program ended June 26, when program leadership decided to spread out dwindling funds over four weeks of small-scale operations, instead of one week of large-scale efforts, Hunger Free Oklahoma Executive Director Chris Bernard said.
Even at a small scale, the program still pumps out 6,600 meals a week to about 15 community organizations.
Bernard wishes the program could continue to support even more restaurant workers and community members in need. None of its kitchen partners are back where they were pre-pandemic, he said.
“There’s this impression that since things are opening back up that business is booming,” he said. “And for most of them, that is not true at all.”