Indeed, families who live below the poverty line find it hard to make ends meet. Feeding America estimates 1 in 6 Oklahomans struggle with hunger.
That’s where Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma’s Fresh Food Mobile Pantry steps in to offer healthy alternatives.
Mobile Pantry is a pilot program started in May 2012. It is designed to provide important dietary needs not easily found at local free-food distributors.
“[It] is a mobile, no-cost farmers market for people living in low-access areas. It provides fresh fruits and vegetables at no cost to each site once a month,” said Tyler Geohagan, Mobile Pantry coordinator.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that most adults eat at least 2 to 3 cups of fresh fruits and vegetables every day, or about 50 percent of each meal. However, low-income families sometimes cannot afford this necessity.
“When individuals are on a limited income, the first thing to go are fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh produce is essential to preserving the health and wellness of seniors and children,” Food Bank Executive Director Rodney Bivens said.
Logistics also cause roadblocks to affordable fresh produce. Geohagan says rural communities don’t have access to the same resources available in larger metros.
“Food deserts — large gaps between grocery stores in both rural and urban areas — and poor public transportation make it difficult for many families in poverty to access fresh fruits and vegetables. Lack of access means many families rarely, if ever, are able to purchase fresh food even if they do have the money because it is not available at the local corner store,” he said.
About 28 pounds of fresh produce is distributed to 600 Oklahoma City families every month, but the Mobile Pantry plans to raise that number to 1,000.
The program relies heavily on grants from companies and individuals. This month, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma (BCBSOK) donated $66,000 to several food bank programs, including the Mobile Pantry and Nutrition Education.
“Access to quality, nutritious food is fundamental to the development of health, which is why we are pleased to partner with the food bank on these two projects,” said BCBSOK President Ted Haynes. “These programs will positively impact lives and health of those in our state who need it most.”
Volunteers for the Mobile Pantry say the program is a great way to give back to the community.
“[It] was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had because it was such an eye-opener to see firsthand how service can have such a great impact in the community,” Sarah Mashburn, a senior at the University of Central Oklahoma and a volunteer, said. “A lot of the families around the area would look forward to [distribution] because they knew… we would be there for them.”
Mashburn started volunteering as part of a project for UCO’s Golden Key International Honour Society. The group of students volunteered every month from June to December last year.
“Programs like this are a vital aspect of the community because it brings people together to help others in need. In the midst of all the negativity you hear about what’s going on in the world and in your community, it’s refreshing to hear that all it takes is a small group of people with big hearts to make a difference,” Mashburn said.
She is not alone. Food bank management estimates 47,000 people volunteered nearly 160,000 hours in fiscal year 2013, saving the organization approximately $3 million in labor costs.
There are even some Mobile Pantry recipients who return to give out donations to others in need.
“There was one family that came and returned the next month, ready to volunteer and help us give out the groceries,” Mashburn said. “They would wait for everyone else to get groceries before they got their own. It was humbling and inspiring to watch their selflessness and compassion toward others. It was neat to see how the people we were helping were encouraged to give back.” The food bank also offers several other programs, including Food for Kids, Senior Feeding, Extra Helpings, Urban Harvest, Beef for Backpacks and Hunger 101. Additionally, it distributes food to more than 90 percent of the food distribution centers in Oklahoma.
In fiscal year 2013, the Food Bank estimates it provided 47.9 million pounds of food, enough to feed 90,000 families a week for the entire year.
Families in need of assistance may contact the food bank at regionalfoodbank.org or call 972-1111.