Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Oklahoma was already the fifth-hungriest state in the nation, according to Feeding America. One in six Oklahomans didn’t know where they would get their next meal. Among Oklahoma’s children, one in four battle food insecurity on a daily basis.
As leaders of the Oklahoma food banks, we see firsthand how the COVID-19 pandemic combined with a slumping energy industry has put even more Oklahomans in economic peril and in need of food assistance. With a record number of Oklahomans filing unemployment claims, every community in the 77 counties has felt the impact.
As our Oklahoma congressional delegation continues to think through solutions, the Oklahoma food banks call them to support proven strategies that move us closer to ending hunger and protecting families during this time of uncertainty.
As Oklahoma communities begin lifting restrictions on use of public spaces, we cannot forget that the impact of COVID-19 remains. Many businesses are operating at partial capacity and some jobs are lost for good. In April, the Oklahoma food banks distributed more than 10 million pounds of food, an increase of 3.5 million pounds over average months. We expect to continue serving high volumes of families seeking food assistance over the coming months, including many families who are seeking help for the first time.
The Oklahoma food banks, along with the more than 600 community-based partner agencies, are hard at work providing assistance to the increasing numbers. However, we cannot do this work alone. The only way to ensure Oklahomans have the food assistance they need both during and after the economic crisis is through a strong charitable sector and deep government investment in our federal nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
SNAP is proven to help safeguard the food security of people in times of need and its strength is unparalleled. In fact, for every meal food banks provide, SNAP provides nine. SNAP is not only an anti-hunger powerhouse, it’s a critical economic multiplier. When low-income families receive SNAP benefits to purchase groceries, those dollars circulate within the local economies and add much needed revenue.
As unemployment remains at an historic rate, it is likely that an economic downturn may follow. Increasing SNAP benefits will help make the program even more responsive to any economic downswing that may come. To that point, the Congressional Budget Office rated an increase in SNAP benefits as one of the most cost-effective ways to boost economic growth and create jobs in a weak economy.
Congress can help us feed the food bank line and shorten the line by increasing the maximum amount of SNAP benefits for those in need of food during the pandemic and expanding our capacity to serve people through the Emergency Food Assistance Program. Due to supply chain interruptions, we are forced to purchase needed items rather than rely on our normal food donors. Our need to purchase food for these boxes is adding millions of dollars per month to the Oklahoma Food Banks’ food purchase expenses.
Earlier this week, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced the HEROES Act that includes important nutrition provisions like temporary SNAP increases, increasing the fresh fruit and vegetables benefit for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children and increases funding for senior nutrition.
We’re asking our fellow Oklahomans to contact the members of the Oklahoma congressional delegation and ask them to take a stand with us and support measures that help our fellow Oklahomans in need.
Lori Long is CEO of the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma. Deb Bunting is the interim CEO of the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.