Common-sense measures to strengthen families and better utilize existing nutrition programs are among strategies to address hunger in Oklahoma identified by the Oklahoma Task Force on Hunger in its final report delivered today to the Governor and leaders from the Senate and the House.
The report includes recommendations for increased coordination among services organizations and ways to extend existing outreach to serve more people. The report also includes strategies to involve schools and improve students' access to sufficient and nutritious food.
State Senator Andrew Rice (D-OKC), who, along with State Representative Kris Steele (R-Shawnee) authored legislation creating the task force last year, said the final report confirms the urgency of the state’s hunger problems.
The Task Force reports that “Oklahoma is one of the hungriest states in America”.
“Over the past ten years, the percentage of our population classified by the United States Department of Agriculture as “food insecure” has risen from 13.1 percent to 14.6 percent,” the report states. “The percentage of our population experiencing hunger, classified as those experiencing “very low food security,” has risen from 4.2 percent to 5.3 percent. On both measures Oklahoma ranks as one of the five worst states in the country.”
The classification “food insecure”, refers to families and individuals who do not receive enough daily nutrition to meet minimal medical benchmarks.
Rice said if half a million Oklahomans are going to bed hungry every night, then answers must be found. He said it is an issue that could not be ignored any longer.
“We have the capacity to address this moral issue head-on and find workable solutions to hunger,” Rice said. “Across Oklahoma, families are being forced to choose between food or rent, food or mortgage payments, food or utilities, and food or medicine. This is not right. We can not afford to leave any of our citizens behind.”
Steele said hunger and malnutrition reduces the ability of adults to work, and most importantly, erodes children’s ability to learn and lead healthy lives.
“It is especially imperative to address hunger issues facing Oklahoma children,” Steele said. “It has a damaging effect on the mental and physical development of children, as they are hampered in school and often develop some form of disability because they are not getting the critical nutrition they need.”
In its roadmap for policymakers, agency officials, and representatives of the charitable community to address Oklahoma's growing hunger problem, the Task Force made the following four primary recommendations:
Increase Participation in Underutilized Federal Food Programs: Many of our existing nutrition programs are under-utilized in Oklahoma, but participation in these programs can be increased through efficient and cost-effective initiatives;
Increase the Capacity of the Private Charitable Emergency Food Networks: Oklahoma's private charitable emergency food network provides effective assistance to those in need and should be strengthened;
Increase Family Economic Stability: Through improvements to existing programs, particularly those involving tax credits, Oklahoma could improve the family economic security of its low-income citizens; and
Strengthen Community Food Security: Oklahoma has the resources to enhance community food security, the ability to grow and produce nutritious food for those in need, and we should take steps to build upon those resources.
Nancy Eggen, with Bread for the World and Chair of the Oklahoma Hunger Task Force said Oklahoma has taken important first steps toward addressing food insecurity.
“As we move forward with the implementation of the report’s recommendations, I invite all Oklahomans to work with us and proclaim, ‘Hunger is not OK’,” Eggan said.
She said the 15-member task force also plans to recommend the creation of a food security council as way to improve the food security of individuals and communities through continued collaborative efforts. The goal of the proposed legislation is to reduce food insecurity in Oklahoma to at or below the national average by 2013.
The initial task for the council would be to identify, by county, existing gaps in services such as grocery stores, food banks and other food outlets, in order to set specific benchmarks for progress in participation, food availability and outreach.
Rodney Bivens, executive director of the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and vice-chair of the Hunger Task Force said the inter-agency collaboration and partnership that began with the Oklahoma Task Force on Hunger should continue through the food security council.
“This is a great opportunity for the state of Oklahoma to collaborate and form partnerships with public and private agencies to continue to find long term solutions to reduce hunger in our state – especially during these trying economic times.”
A copy of the complete report from the Task Force is available online at: www.hungerinoklahoma.org.