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Oklahomans go hungry as food banks struggle


Associated Press

The emptiness Donna Gill feels in the pit of her stomach is a familiar reminder of a dilemma she faces all too often: she is hungry again.

Gill has gone up to four agonizing days without eating. Food is sometimes scarce at her home and Gill might be hungry more often if not for charitable food pantries that distribute food to needy Oklahomans free of charge.

"Everything helps. I'm not picky," the disabled Oklahoma City woman said as she and her mother, Peggy Wray, picked up bags of nonperishable food and loaves of bread at The Salvation Army's food pantry.

"When you do without, you know," Gill said.

Gill and her mother are not alone. A study released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture ranked Oklahoma fifth worst in the nation in the level of food insecurity in households statewide between 2004 and 2006.

The USDA report read14.6 percent of Oklahoma's 1.4 million households experience food insecurity, meaning that at times these households lacked sufficient food.

It also read that 5.3 percent of households in the state experienced very low food security, meaning that the food intake of one or more adults was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times because the household lacked money and other resources for food.

"It's very disturbing. We're talking about a basic need that every human being has."

--Rep. Kris Steele, R-Shawnee

Oklahoma was one of 15 states and the District of Columbia whose food insecurity ranking was above the national average of 11.3 percent of U.S. households, according to the report.

"We're continuing to see it as a very serious issue," said Sally White, chief programs officer at the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, the largest private hunger-relief charity in the state.

The Food Bank distributes 24 million pounds of food each year to nearly 500 churches and charities that operate feeding programs in 53 central and western Oklahoma counties.

"It's challenging. We're seeing more and more people with needs coming and sometimes less food to address that," White said.

The Salvation Army's Oklahoma City food pantry closed four times in October after running out of food due to high demand, said spokeswoman Heide Brandes.

"Food goes very quickly," Brandes said.

Dozens of the charity's clients crowded into the pantry on senior day, a day set aside for elderly men and women to receive bags of donated groceries. Elderly clients are permitted to pick up food twice a month, but it rarely lasts longer than a few days.

"It just helps us out to come here," said Xyla Mann, a disabled Oklahoma City resident who has two of her disabled children living with her.

"There's been times that we had to do it," Mann said. "There's been times when it was really skimpy."

Her friend, Linda Wilson, said groceries she picks up at the food pantry help feed herself, a grandson and other family members who live with her.

"It helps things stretch farther," Wilson said.

"Money never goes far enough, the way gas prices are," Mann added.

The storage shelves in The Salvation Army pantry slowly emptied as workers filled bag after bag with canned fruits and vegetables, rice and a variety of packaged foods. Brandes said the charity gave away 28,000 bags of food during its recently ended 2007 fiscal year, up from 21,000 in 2006.

"What I love to cook is beans and rice cause it fills you up," Wilson said.

"You don't get everything you want to eat, but you do get to eat," Mann said.

The charity spends up to $2,500 a week to help keep the shelves stocked but still experiences shortages, said Toni Sanders, executive director of social and disaster services for The Salvation Army in Oklahoma City.

Sanders said many of The Salvation Army's clients have low or fixed incomes and cannot make ends meet with rising costs fuel and medication.

According to the USDA, about 21 percent of food-insecure households obtained emergency food from a food pantry at some time during the past year, and 2.2 percent ate one or more meals at an emergency kitchen in their community.

"The dollars are just not going far enough," Sanders said. "They buy a percentage of their medication so they can buy food."

The USDA report said the typical food-secure household spent 31 percent more on food than the typical food-insecure household of the same size and household composition.

Rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average for households with incomes near or below the federal poverty level, households with children headed by single women and black and Hispanic households, it said.

Nationwide, children in about 221,000 households experienced reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns. White said children who are hungry have a hard time focusing on school work.

"They're focusing on their stomach being empty," she said.

Hunger negatively affects every aspect of a person's life, from malnourishment and health problems to productivity on the job, said state Rep. Kris Steele (R-Shawnee) a member of a state Hunger Task Force.

"It's very disturbing," Steele said. "We're talking about a basic need that every human being has."

Steele plans to file legislation to create a Food Security Council that will coordinate food security programs and work to see that no Oklahoman goes hungry. He said he also wants to create new public-private partnerships to enhance food donation and distribution programs already in place.

"The immediate need is to make sure people have enough to eat," Steele said. "In Oklahoma, if we can't take care of our neighbors, who can?"

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