Economists, politicians, journalists—everyone likes to point to the unemployment rate as an indicator of how far we’ve come since the worst of the recession.
In Oklahoma, for instance, (as of today) we’re at 4.9 percent unemployment, down from its peak of 7.2 percent, back in February of 2010.
That sounds like pretty good news. But ongoing need—especially among the area’s hungry—hasn’t necessarily diminished at the same rate.
For instance, the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma currently operates on about 80 percent donated food. The Food Bank’s Susan Tilkin says that’s down significantly from past years.
“We’ve had to purchase more food in the last two years than we ever had in the past, based on the fact that the need has been so high,” she said. “We weren’t able to rely enough on the donated food. In past years, over 90 percent of the food here was donated.”
She says these days, food moves faster off the shelves.
Addressing the Problem
In Tulsa County, about 17 percent of the population is food insecure—meaning subject to limited physical and economic access to adequate and healthy food.
Drive south on US-75, and that number begins to climb, especially if you detour west, toward McCurtain and LeFlore counties.
That’s why the Food Bank has decided to open its first-ever satellite branch location, in McAlester.
Shannon Snelling is the branch manager of the new McAlester location.
He’s been working for weeks to get the new site ready, at first travelling down several times a week, though he’s recently moved with his family in anticipation of the opening.
For many of the Food Bank’s partner programs, the new branch will replace weekly or monthly deliveries of orders by Food Bank trucks.
“I hope they’ll realize they can order more food instead of waiting for one truckload that’s going to be dispersed,” Snelling said. “Hopefully they’ll realize, Hey, I can order more things ‘cause it’s already here, it’s not far to go.”
Tilkin says it should also allow partner programs to order more in the way of perishables.
“If you pick up on a Wednesday but you don’t see clients again until next Monday,” she said, “you’re not going to take fresh produce, because you know in those four or five days it will more than likely go bad, especially in this heat.”
Snelling says the people who need this help are “basically anybody. I mean, every place I’ve been, it’s anybody at all.”
Snelling says he can identify with the people who need the Food Bank. Before being hired as an order-puller at the Tulsa location, he was unemployed for six months.
“That’s why I feel blessed to be here,” he said, “let alone trying to help start this up to reach more people, because I feel like I’ve been there.”
As we tour the Tulsa facility, Tilkin stops at a sign on the wall that says, “Oklahoma is the fourth hungriest state in the nation.”
“This sign was probably made in 2007,” she said, “and last year we were sadly ranked first, tied with Arkansas as the two hungriest states. And every time I see that sign it always hits home that we’re going the wrong direction.”
The idea is that the branch will help change that direction.
It’s a light week for this delivery, one Thursday in July—just 1100 pounds of food for four agencies.
The Oaks Rehab Center, the Kiowa Emergency Food Pantry, McAlester Group Home and McAlester Care Center are picking up orders from Food Bank delivery driver Jeff Fannin.
With the new branch, his routes and his schedule are about to change.
Here at the Pittsburg County Warehouse, the Food Bank’s drop-off point for this area, Glen Bennet is picking up for the Oaks Rehab Center.
He describes his position as “maintenance, slash supervisor, slash everything else.”
He says Oaks has an order delivered monthly and calls it, “usually pretty important for us. We get a fair amount of what we use each month from here.”
That’s some non-perishables as well as some non-food items like paper goods and soap.
He says with the new location, “It’ll be easier for us I think, because we’ll be able to get stuff readily here instead of having to wait each month.”
Another of the Food Bank’s partner programs, McAlester’s First Christian Church, also relies on the Food Bank for deliveries, and is one of several local churches that help distribute food to the town’s many people who need help feeding themselves and their families.
Meet the Norwoods
The Norwood family is an example of a group of people living with many of the problems the Food Bank hopes to be able to better address.
William is the family’s patriarch, of sorts, and, along with his son George, is the one who speaks on its behalf. William told me their income is just $728 per month in Social Security.
“We get a small, small deal of food stamps” to supplement that, he said. “It’s hard to make that last a full month. On $101, you can’t buy a good decent bill of groceries to last—food that you need. You can buy junk food, stuff like that, you know.”
And that’s not just for William and his wife. Tammy, William’s mother, and his son George and George’s wife all live in one household, for which they pay $500 in rent.
They wouldn’t get by without help from the church. And they’re not alone.
“People that I know that could afford,” William said, “is even having trouble now, having money to do stuff with.”
It’s clear the Norwood’s McAlester is not George Bailey’s Bedford Falls.
“This town, like I said, it is full of needy families” he said. “I see people standing on the streets every day. From young to old. I see it going on.”
With an income like theirs, minor changes in economic indicators like the statewide unemployment rates don’t have much meaning.
I asked the Norwoods why they thought the situation in McAlester was similar for so many people.
“Drought’s got a lot to do with it,” George said. “A lot of it is the economy.”
For a family who receives just $101 per month in food stamps, that has a very specific meaning.
“Three years ago you could go to WalMart and buy a loaf of bread for 89 cents,” George explained. “You go to WalMart now and buy a loaf of bread, you give almost two dollars for a loaf. The same bread … You go buy a head of lettuce you’re going to give a dollar fifty now, when three years ago you could get 50, 75 cents for a head of lettuce.”
The rising price of gas, too, they say has taken its toll. William says, his family used to be able to afford to visit Tennessee, with his mother.
“I’ve got an older sister lives down there,” he said. “I can’t afford that trip now. I can’t afford it. It’s too expensive.”
The last time they were able to make the trip was more than five years ago.
The economy’s not the only bad luck they had in 2008.
“I don’t hold down a full time job,” George said, “because back in ’08 I was in a car accident—me and my wife both (were) rear ended when we were sitting dead still.
A resulting injury has meant that he can’t do the kind of regular work he used to.
“So now, I just do odd jobs,” he said. “You know, we roof houses, or we’ll build a fence, or mow a yard, or haul off junk … just trying to make ends meet.”
William, though he’s sixty two, helps his son with those jobs when he can. He says, there have been times when they haven’t had enough.
“I’ve let him, and my other son, and (my wife) and my mother, eat, while I just sat. I’ve done that a lot,” he said.
“It hurts me down low,” he said, “but I back up, look at it and start all over again.”
They have an estimate on how many people in McAlester need the kind of help they get from the food pantry at the First Christian Church: 90 percent.
Maybe that sounds extreme. But Millie Vestal, who operates the First Christian Church’s food pantry, has a similar story.
“Here in McAlester, I would venture to say there are somewhere between 85 and 95 percent needy people, be it financially, materially, physically,” Millie said. “They’re just needy people here in McAlester.”
Millie, whom the whole town knows by first name, understands that need; she’s a retired federal government employee, but supplements that income by working at the church. It isn’t just her own need that keeps her working, however.
“I’d been retired for nine months. I couldn’t handle retirement,” she recalled. “I’m amateur at crochet and I crocheted 16 afghans in that nine months.”
She considers herself blessed to be able to do the work that she does. She also considers the Food Bank a blessing.
Shannon Snelling, who’ll be the new branch manager, recently delivered a load of fresh produce.
“I went and met him,” Millie said, “gave him a hug and I said, ‘Shannon, You are definitely an answer to prayer today,’ and he said, ‘I’m just a servant.’”
Working to get things ready at the new location, Snelling maintains that humility.
“The food’s the blessing,” he said. “I’m just the messenger.”
The current date for the opening of the McAlester branch is August 28.