Last week I wrote about attending the Tulsa premier of A Place at the Table. The film and the discussion that followed raised so many important issues I decided to write a two-part report. My previous post focused on the film. This second installment will focus on the discussion that followed.
A Place at the Table opened at the Circle Cinema on March 8th, and was followed by a panel discussion featuring three local advocates. These three local experts were:
- Eileen Bradshaw, Executive Director of the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma.
- Jan Figart, Associate Director of the Community Service Council; and
- Rev. Ron Robinson, Director of A Third Place, a grassroots organization serving neighborhoods in North Tulsa and Turley;
For a little over an hour, an audience crowded the lobby of the theater as panelists talked about the local story. The conversation brought home the fact that hunger is a disturbingly local problem. Despite the continuing efforts of local organizations, the panelists were not there to report they were meeting all the needs of their clients – they were there to tell us the need is still greater than their resources. Here are just a few of the important points the panelist covered:
- Oklahoma is Among the Leaders in U.S. Hunger: The panel began with facts about hunger in our city and our state, and
if you visit the Community Food Bank’s “Hunger Fact” pageit presents a similar foundation of relevent facts about food insecurity (The “Hunger Fact” webpage is no longer available. You can visit Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap and click on Oklahoma for relevent information instead.) Here are two quick indicators that Oklahoma has a problem with hunger: 1) In 2011, the USDA ranked Oklahoma fourth in the nation in food insecurity; and 2) One in four Oklahomans, that’s 880,939 people, reported relying on SNAP benefits to supplement their grocery budget in 2011, according to a Tulsa World article.
- Food Deserts are a problem in Tulsa: A food desert is a populated area, typically a low-income neighborhood, whose residents lack access to affordable, nutritious, fresh food. Low-income families often face transportation barriers, which makes living in an area with no nearby grocery stores an obstacle to a healthy diet. These areas exist here in Tulsa, as evidenced by the USDA’s Food Access Research Map. (Just type 74130 or 74126 in the search field to locate and zoom in on the area served by A Third Place). In a food desert, options for food are often limited to convenience stores, fast food and food pantries which do not offer an affordable, balanced diet.
- Meeting people where they are: Effective programs bring food into communities for easy access. One way local volunteers bring food directly to people in need is by filling backpacks for kids to take home from school, using supplies donated by our local food bank. The Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma also supplies 450 partners across 24 counties who distribute food in local communities. A Third Place operates the Welcome Table Community Center; located in Turley, an unincorporated town five miles north of downtown Tulsa. Their services include a “Corner Store,” which provides an experience that resembles shopping at a local store as opposed to visiting a typical food pantry. Of course, linking people to their closest resources is also essential. So one of the many services provided by the Community Service Council is the 2-1-1 Helpline. This helpline connects families in 37 Eastern Oklahoma counties with local resources that assist with food, clothing, housing, employment and other needs. However, getting fresh food to hungry families continues to be a problem because organizations do not always have the delivery capacity for timely transport of perishable foods.
- “Growing your own garden is like printing your own money”: I have to credit Ron Robinson for driving this point home. Gardening is one of the creative ways local groups are tackling the problem of low access to fruits and vegetables. The Community Food Bank has a garden and A Third Place has also planted a community garden, as well as an orchard. As one of the panelist pointed out, SNAP benefits can be used to buy seeds. So organizations are teaching people to grow small gardens of their own to supplement their budget. (Check out the USDA’s page on using SNAP to fund a garden) Yet, like so many good ideas, gardening is only a partial solution. Gardens are a seasonal resource whose size and scope can’t be expected to fill all the needs of hungry families year round.
As both the panel of speakers and the film point out, charitable food donations are an emergency measure, never designed to substitute for effective government policy. While there are countless volunteers and a number of charitable organizations working on this problem, there is still a role for government to play, without which there can be no long-term success in the war against hunger.