Food insecurity persists even as the economy rebounds from the downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 15% of Oklahomans will have difficulty accessing food for themselves and their families this year.
With the nation’s fifth-highest rate of food insecurity before the pandemic, Oklahoma already struggled to provide nourishing meals to its 4 million residents. The national public health crisis worsened the problem.
"Across the 53 counties we serve in central and western Oklahoma, we saw a 30% increase in need among Oklahomans facing food insecurity, with many seeking food assistance for the first time," says Stacy Dykstra, chief executive officer of the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma based in Oklahoma City.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma (BCBSOK) has a longstanding commitment to investing in food banks across Oklahoma and supporting sustainable resources and strategies to combat hunger and improve health.
"We saw a 30% increase in need among Oklahomans facing food insecurity, with many seeking food assistance for the first time."
Those local food banks, with help from the national hunger-relief organization Feeding America, are buying nutritious and culturally appropriate foods for the communities they serve. They’re also developing and implementing policies focused on finding a larger variety of nutritious foods needed to help prevent diet-related conditions that can compromise their clients’ health.
“While Oklahomans continue to bear the impacts of COVID-19, we seek to address issues that will impact our community long term,” says BCBSOK President Joseph R. Cunningham, M.D. “That's why we have teamed up with Feeding America to continue our support of local food banks and pantries in Oklahoma to reduce barriers. We want to help ensure everyone has access to healthy and nutritious food.”
In 2020, almost 11% of American households had trouble feeding all family members, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. Meantime, an existing gap between Black and white households expanded, with nearly 22% of Black households experiencing food insecurity, compared with a little more than 7% of white households.
That struggle to get nourishing food for themselves and their families puts people at risk for a lifetime of poor health outcomes and disparities. Research shows food insecurity can lead to hypertension, stroke, cancer, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease.
“When someone has food insecurity, they're oftentimes dealing with trade-offs with food and other basic needs or engaging in coping strategies such as eating fewer meals or watering down their meals,” says Jessica Hager, Feeding America’s director of health care partnerships and nutrition.
Those trade-offs can lead to developmental delays and behavioral issues for children and disease management problems for adults with diabetes and other health conditions, Hager says.
A focus on nutrition and culture
This year BCBSOK has invested in Feeding America’s work focusing on closing nutritional gaps, addressing health disparities and creating culturally competent connections with food bank clients.
The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma are among 26 food banks carrying out this work with Feeding America grants supported by Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans in Illinois, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
The projects include surveying and engaging their communities to understand their food needs and cultural preferences, while building trust with the people they serve and working to provide communities with a better balance of nutritious foods.
“This goes beyond food categories of protein, dairy and produce, but really what are the specific ingredients that are traditional or special in one's culture,” Hager says. “We know that in the United States there's such great diversity in our food and the cultures that are represented, and we as a food bank network want to be able to meet those food needs and preferences.”
Despite those efforts to offer more nutritious and culturally appropriate foods, some food banks, including the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, still are operating under their COVID-19 disaster response plans, feeding as many Oklahomans as they can in more innovative ways. For example, the Regional Food Bank partnered with 28 health departments to assess residents’ food needs at COVID-19 testing sites, serving 14,000 households.
“They may not all have been food insecure, but they may not have had someone to grocery shop for them after testing positive for COVID-19 and having to isolate at home,” says Keeley White, the food bank’s healthy communities director.
Additionally, the food bank began partnering with Oklahoma City’s public transportation system, EMBARK, to deliver food to older homebound people, which it plans to continue after COVID-19 cases subside. The Senior Home Delivery program stretches their budgets and provides healthier foods, residents say.
“The silver lining to COVID-19 was that it gave us the opportunity to explore new partnerships,” White says. “There was more of a focus on food insecurity and its prevalence in Oklahoma. We had to become so innovative to address it.”