Working at the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma for the last two years I have witnessed some pretty awesome events that touch at the depth of people’s resolve to fight hunger in the state of Oklahoma. Last year the Food Bank was able to participate in an Emergency Family Box Program, where Food Bank employees and volunteers were able to do in three and a half months what had been allocated for five months and distributed in excess of 6 million additional pounds of food to those in need. This influx of food helped put a dent in hunger and helped grow the Food Bank’s distribution to the largest we have ever seen. Since this time, some of the food sources that had been available to the food bank have begun to decline. The Food Bank enjoys an excellent partnership with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and the USDA TEFAP Commodity program which provides food to the agencies serviced by the food bank. This program, like many others, is seeing declines in availability, causing a significant food source of the food bank to diminish. Over the last several months, the Food Bank has actually been distributing more inventory than is coming in to replenish the outflow. This trend has caused the warehouse picking area to be consolidated by three entire aisles that last year would have been filled with product being distributed. Currently the Food Bank has distributed 63% of the volume that had been distributed during the same time frame last year. Increasingly the food that is available for acquisition is frozen, refrigerated, or bulk items that must be reworked in order to be distributed. Sourcing food that is not immediately available for distribution creates opportunities for the excellent volunteers that donate their time to feeding the hungry, but also increases the length of time from donation until availability to agencies and the people they serve. Additionally, refrigerated and frozen foods require special storage that not all agencies can accommodate in large quantities, More than ever, in order to maintain our previous years’ progress against hunger, there will need to be greater amounts of donations. Through donation of time, money, and food we can continue to fight hunger in the state of Oklahoma.
Moving back to my home state of Oklahoma and joining the staff of the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma have both been wonderful blessings to me. It is so good to be home! The things I missed the most in my twenty years away were the open arms, friendly smiles and genuine hearts of my Oklahoma neighbors. In all of my travels, which have been far-flung, I have never encountered more wonderful people. How fortunate I was to have been born and raised here and to learn my values in a small rural farming community in Grant County.
Those values placed a heavy emphasis on hard work, humility and always lending a helping hand to anyone in need. And those principles have guided my life and my work. Having grown up in a community where the safety net was wide and tightly woven, it was a shock—and also an odd sort of insult—to return home and find that Oklahoma ranked fifth in the nation for hunger insecurity. How could that safety net be failing so badly?!
As I have immersed myself in the work of the Regional Food Bank, I have been humbled and moved by the stories of those we serve. I have also been amazed and thrilled with the support and compassion of those who work with me, as well as those who support our efforts through volunteering, giving and advocating in the fight against hunger. There is so much need, but there is an equally strong commitment from caring and wonderfully capable people to meet and eradicate that need with hard work and compassion.
More than anything though, I have found that this “work” is simply so compelling—so transformative—that it can’t be left behind at the end of the day. It follows me home, and it works its way into every aspect of my life. At first this was a concern for me, because as a single working mom I have always been very diligent about leaving work at work and keeping faith and family as the first priorities at all times. But I have made a new discovery. Working to fight hunger and to promote dignity and hope among those in need is work that shouldn’t be left at the office. Compassion, understanding and engagement not only should have a place at my family table, but they should start there.
My teenage son and I have enjoyed some of the deepest and most meaningful conversations about values and responsibilities to others in the last few months. And we have had the very best time volunteering together, actively engaging in the fight to end hunger and demonstrating that values are not merely philosophical and intellectual, but rather are calls to action and commitment. So even though I spend my days, and then some, working to keep others from struggling with hunger, I am very glad and very blessed to know that in my home hunger has a place at the family table.
If I’m remembering correctly, the last person to assign me this classic essay topic was my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Styles. I’d just spent the summer with my grandparents, and spending time with my grandparents meant doing a lot of yard work.
Now, a couple of decades later, I find myself at the end of another summer of yard work, but, not having a Mrs. Styles to report to, I’m sending my essay out into the blogosphere instead.
To begin, I don’t mind getting dirty, and I love being outside. That’s why, when looking at the different volunteer opportunities on the Regional Food Bank’s website last May, I thought Urban Harvest would be the best fit for me.
I’ve been able to volunteer at the Food Bank since then, and while I respect and value the work that’s being done in the volunteer center and our partner agencies, I have no regrets about my decision to spend eight hours each day in the Food Bank’s great big backyard.
Anyone who’s never had the opportunity to see the garden hiding behind our warehouse should really find a reason to go check it out (for a good excuse, I suggest coming to one of our open volunteer sessions from 8-12 on Tuesdays and Thursdays). If you’ve ever wondered about vermicomposting or using an aquaponics system, it’s very informative and also pretty cool. As for me, I had never wondered about these things before turning up to volunteer, because I’d never heard of them. This made it even more informative and fun.
I expected to spend a lot of time weeding, watering, and planting. That’s what I did the summer before the fifth grade, after all. I wasn’t wrong. I did a lot of that stuff.
But, what my grandparents hadn’t prepared me for was all the other awesome stuff I got to do. By the end of my three months of yard work, I’d helped build a scenic field of rolling compost hillsides. I’d poured earthworms through a self-rotating mechanical sieve. I’d saved tilapia from a minor oil spill, chased a rabbit through a greenhouse, strapped a Ghostbusters-style sprayer to my back, and learned a ton about natural gardening. If you’re curious about vermicomposting and aquaponics, ask me. I’ll tell you all about it.
Volunteering in the Urban Harvest gardens turned out to be the perfect way for me to help provide fresh food for hungry Oklahomans, and be outside and get a little dirty while doing it. Overall, it was a pretty sweet summer.
Have you ever thought about what it must feel like to go hungry? Not the stomach growling, I’m craving a bag of chips kind of hungry – but the feeling like your navel is touching your backbone kind of empty gnawing ache kind of hungry. I know that I have never experienced that kind of hunger in my lifetime.
Nor have I ever, not once, worried about whether or not I had enough food in my house to feed my daughter or myself. Even when I was maxing out my credit card to pay for groceries and working two jobs to keep up with the bills, I somehow, almost instinctively, knew that if I really truly got in a bind I had family and friends I could call upon for help. Looking back, I probably should have cried “Uncle” and asked for help a few times along the way – but I suppose if I am to be honest about it, pride kept me from doing so.
But never having experienced the pain – and by pain I mean the actual physical pain – of hunger, does not prevent me from having empathy and compassion for those who have. When I read a quote from a 16 year old child – and yes, at 16 he is still just a child – about the hunger in his stomach speaking louder than the teacher standing before him, it literally makes my heart ache.
When I see the smile on the face of seniors as they make their way through the mobile pantry line to pick up several bags of food, I find myself wondering what kind of life they led before they ended up living alone and dependent upon others for food. Someday, when I have the time, I would love to visit with those seniors, hear their stories and let them know that they still matter.
We are all put on this earth to make a difference in each other’s lives. I believe, through whatever small part I can play in the good work being done by the Regional Food Bank, I will be able to say at the end of my life that I have made a difference along the way.
I know there are children and seniors out there who have been given hope and had their dignity restored because someone cared enough to provide them food when they needed it most– without them ever having to cry “Uncle.”
I’m grateful to be a part of such an amazing organization whose mission is simply “Fighting Hunger…Feeding Hope.” I hope you will all take time to do something to make a difference in the life of a hungry Oklahoman.