By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer
Access to enough nutritious food to live an active and healthy lifestyle is tough for tens of thousands of eastern Oklahoma residents and could get even tougher.
Food insecurity impacts 18.3 percent of the 70,600 people who live in Muskogee County, and it’s not much better for those in surrounding counties. Of the 17,500 children in Muskogee County, 4,602, or 26.3 percent, are considered food insecure.
This information comes from Feeding America, in findings from its Map the Meal Gap project. The county-by-county analysis is based upon 2011 data collected by the Economic Research Service arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The analysis comes as the U.S. Senate passed a farm bill that would cut about $400 million annually from the food stamp program. A bill working its way through the U.S. House of Representatives would cut even more — $20 billion during the next 10 years — from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Local experts say food insecurity affects everybody, not just those who struggle to put food on the table. Research shows food insecurity and poverty “can dramatically alter the architecture of children’s brains, making it impossible for them to fulfill their potential.”
“There is nothing getting better here,” said Kate Richey, a policy analyst for Oklahoma Policy Institute in Tulsa. “The reason it looks a little better (statistically) is because the past three years have been so bad — any improvement is just because people are climbing out of that recession.”
Richey said she hasn’t seen anything policy-wise at the state or federal level that would increase food security in Oklahoma. Congressional funding cuts that appear inevitable, she said, will exacerbate an already pressing problem.
The high level of food insecurity experienced by nearly two of every 10 Oklahomans can be traced to two factors. Richey said the imbalance stems from wage stagnation and inflationary pressures that pump up the cost of groceries.
“The price of an average basket of food has risen more than 28.8 percent since 2005,” Richey said. “Over that same period of time, wages have not risen at all. There are people out there working full-time jobs who still can’t afford the basic necessities.”
The USDA’s Economic Research Service found U.S. households began economizing food purchases in December 2007 because of recessionary pressures. Average household income, after being adjusted for inflation, fell from $60,533 in 2006 to $59,067 in 2009.
Food prices peaked in 2008, rising at a rate of 5.5 percent annually before they began to decline in February 2009. The cost of groceries continued to climb at about 3.8 percent a year, contributing to a 4.96 percent decline in spending on food from 2006 to 2009.
Maggie Hoey, communications and marketing manager for the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, said one factor in food insecurity here is the swelling ranks of underemployed and working poor.
“A lot of people we see are working, but their earnings are too low to cover the costs of even their most basic needs,” said Hoey, noting the Tulsa-based food bank provides food through 450 partner programs in 24 eastern Oklahoma counties.
Both Hoey and Richey said they are keeping an eye on developments in Washington. Hoey said proposed cuts to SNAP funding in the House farm bill would have a huge impact “on people here at home.”
“We understand the need to reduce the deficit,” Hoey said. “But we cannot do it on the backs of people who really do need our help.”
Besides proposed cuts to SNAP funding, analysts with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities say food stamp recipients could see their benefits shrink beginning Nov. 1. If Congress fails to renew provisions authorized by the 2009 Recovery Act that temporarily boosted SNAP funding, a family of three could see benefits cut from $240 to $300 a year.
That cut is significant, considering SNAP benefits average about $1.40 a meal per person after subtracting the additional funding provided through the Recovery Act. That falls 47.2 percent, or $1.25, short of the $2.65 average cost of a basic, healthy meal here.
Doug Walton, coordinator of the Muskogee County Turning Point Coalition’s food and fitness initiative, said allowing the temporary SNAP funding to lapse could compound the problem.
“I think I understand where the cuts are coming from — the need to balance the budget is there,” Walton said. “I just believe we have other areas where spending could be cut that is less critical to people who struggle day-to-day to live in a dignified way to put food on their tables.”
Walton said Muskogee residents are fortunate to have a farmers’ market where SNAP benefits are accepted. Recipients can buy fresh, locally grown produce and meat there and SNAP benefits can be used to buy food-bearing plants.
Walton and Richey said while food stamps help low-income families become food secure, a more permanent response would be increased investments in education and job-training to equip residents with skills needed to earn a sustainable wage.
“People do not voluntarily make a decision to be dependent upon somebody else for their basic needs,” Richey said. “Until we adopt policies that promote broad-based economic development that creates jobs that pay a living wage, we will never be able to cut these programs.”
Until that day arrives, Richey said, it would be cruel to arbitrarily deny those who deal with food insecurity access to one of the most basic things in life.
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For county-by-county comparisons of food insecurity for the entire United States and more information about the Map the Meal Gap project, navigate to http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-studies/map-the-meal-gap.aspx.