It’s been three years since Melissa Moore turned to food pantries to keep meals on the table. When her food stamp benefits increased to $500 a month during the pandemic, she could feed her family of three without tapping her disability check.
Congress halted those emergency pandemic benefits at the end of February, three months ahead of schedule. As a result, Moore found herself in a drive-thru line of 50 cars again last month outside the Urban Mission, an Oklahoma City food and resource center.
Moore, 53, is among the 557,000 Oklahomans whose incomes and assets fall within limits that qualify them for food stamps, also called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. One in four SNAP recipients report not having enough food at least sometimes, according to U.S. Census data collected after extra SNAP benefits ended.
Many are turning to food banks. One pantry in Muskogee reports the number of customers served last month nearly doubled over pandemic averages. In the most food-insecure portions of Oklahoma, relief organizations are trying to keep up with demand by deploying mobile pantries in communities where 20% of residents live below the poverty line.
Elected leaders in counties where federal pandemic relief funds are still being allocated say they are considering investing some of those funds in food banks, though several are prioritizing long-term projects unlikely to address the immediate need.
“Families were already facing stubbornly high food prices and those prices are going to continue to rise,” said Calvin Moore, CEO of the Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma. “And not only food prices are rising, but other needs are going unmet because people are (struggling) to find ways to feed themselves.”
Melissa Moore, her husband and her adult son are coping with a food stamp benefit decrease of about $200 that forced her to start using her disability check for groceries instead of utilities. She’s also started turning to food pantries about once a week as her husband waits for approval to receive disability checks for several health conditions, including diabetes.
“Without food pantries, I would really be in a big world of hurt,” said Moore, whose battle with throat cancer left her unable to work.
When Moore arrived at the front of the car line outside Urban Mission, the bags of produce, bread, meat, and canned goods that workers brought out to her car felt lighter than usual. Urban Mission executive director German Garcia said the non-profit organization’s staff has doubled the number of stores they receive donations in the last year, but they’ve still had to improvise to preserve their supply. Garcia said some weeks, the pantry runs out of rice and limits customers to one loaf of bread.
Feeding America projected that eastern Oklahoma was the most food-insecure congressional district for children in the country in 2021. Many eastern ZIP codes have significant numbers of residents who receive SNAP, according to state data.
The region’s food insecurity stems from weak education and transportation infrastructures, not a lack of food, said Calvin Moore, whose bank supplies several pantries experiencing an increase in customers.
Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma has expanded its mobile pantry program in the region since 2021 and now includes 10 pantries in southeastern Oklahoma communities like Poteau, where one in five residents live in poverty. Several of these communities have one grocery store and no other food resources beyond mobile pantries, said Phillip Griffith, who coordinates those pantries.
In Muskogee, where about 25% of residents live in poverty, Deborah Carment runs the Community Food Pantry out of the First United Methodist Church. Carment said her staff saw about 250 people a month during the pandemic. That average grew to about 430 in March and 480 in April.
Carment and a team of four volunteers work out of the church’s gym and foyer, where they meet cars as they pull up. As customers fill out a check-in sheet identifying themselves, staff members organize a small batch of groceries to wheel out in grocery carts.
The increase in customers has pushed pantry staff to try to stretch its stock, which is sourced from the Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, local grocery stores and donations. Instead of the 21 items offered to each customer during the pandemic, Carment said they’ve dropped to 12 items rotated depending on availability.
What local leaders are considering to fill resource gaps
Three county governments in Oklahoma are still dispersing money they received through the American Rescue Plan Act, which could allow for more support to food banks. They have until 2026 to spend the money, which some officials say gives them more time to weigh the long-term impacts.
In Colorado, Jefferson County commissioners recently approved an additional $350,000 in ARPA funding for food support, anticipating the impacts of SNAP decreases. In Ohio, Portage County commissioners granted $1 million to local food pantries in a similar effort.
Counties that still have ARPA money could consider investing in food access projects, said Chris Bernard, executive director of Hunger Free Oklahoma. But Bernard acknowledged the challenge of deciding which needs to address, as food insecurity, housing and employment issues can converge.
Tulsa County commissioners granted extra funding for food banks early in the pandemic using Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act money, said Terry Simonson, the county’s director of grants and government relations.
When American Rescue Plan Act funding later became available, Simonson said requests from food banks were usually for long-term projects, not immediate need. He said he believes early action the county took to support community organizations helped them avoid an increase in applications for food funding when food stamp benefits decreased.
Simonson said county commissioners have about $3.5 million in ARPA funds left to spend, and they’ve taken a break to consider the 25 pending applications.
Gina Rogers, a deputy in the LeFlore County Clerk’s office, said the eastern Oklahoma county has about $4 million in unspent pandemic relief money and commissioners are working through requests. They haven’t gotten requests from local food pantries, she said.
Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan said commissioners prioritized improvements to the county jail using ARPA money because they saw it as one of the most viable forms of funding. Among the state’s 77 counties, only Oklahoma receives no county-level sales tax, meaning the county gets no revenue outside of property taxes.
The county recently started the first round and has about $4.9 million to give out, Maughan said. Commissioners are working through about 130 applications, including one from the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.
Maughan said his top priority is creating permanent change rather than delaying negative consequences.
“It may not just be about buying another crate of fruits or vegetables,” Maughan said. “That’s what I’m talking about with a long-term impact is that it’s something that will help them be more efficient and expand their impact beyond just this one-time donation.”
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.