Shonia Hall, director of school nutrition services for Oklahoma City Public Schools. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

The masked workers load styrofoam containers with pizza, carrots, applesauce and milk, working with assembly-line efficiency to push out meals to the line of cars stretched around the south Oklahoma City school building. 

Oklahoma City Public Schools, now in summer break, launched its summer feeding program last week at 23 schools across the district. Last year the district distributed 14,000 free meals during the entire summer. This year, the district surpassed 14,000 meals by the second day.

“We love to feed kids, this is what we do, there are just more kids now who need a meal,” said Shonia Hall, the district’s director of school nutrition services.

But demand for food has not only increased for the state’s largest school district. 

Applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps, has more than doubled.

Many of the more than 300 neighborhood food pantries across Oklahoma are serving twice as many families. 

And the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma has brought in members of the National Guard to help load food into semis, delivering more than 6.2 million pounds in April, an increase of more than 30 percent from a normal month. 

“You cannot say there isn’t a need,” said Cathy Nestlen, director of strategic communications for the Regional Food Bank in Oklahoma City.

This is what it looks like when one of the hungriest states in the nation experiences an economic crisis of historic proportions, when more than 154,000 Oklahomans have filed unemployment claims and thousands of jobs seemed to vanish overnight at hotels, restaurants and in the oil fields. 

John, a father of two who recently lost his job as a mechanic, panhandles at an Oklahoma City intersection. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

“Demand (for food services) is way higher and much of it is from folks who have never accessed it before,” said Chris Bernard, executive director of Hunger Free Oklahoma, a Tulsa-based nonprofit.

Already the nation’s fifth-highest food insecure state where one in five children struggle with hunger, Oklahoma has seen an increased demand for food at schools, food banks and other social service organizations.

The coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of schools and businesses, but Oklahoma has also been hit by a slumping oil and gas sector, which plays an outsized role in the state’s economy. 

Some government leaders have optimistically predicted a quick economic recovery with malls and restaurants full again by summer. While that will rely on the state avoiding a second spike in COVID-19 cases, and Oklahomans feeling more comfortable leaving their homes, social service leaders say an economic rebound may not include the state’s neediest residents for a long time. 

The Frontier conducted interviews with more than two dozen people in social service organizations and all predicted the current food crisis will last well into next year. 

“I worry there is going to be a perception that now everything is open and no one is hurting anymore,” Bernard said. “A lot of these people are not going to get stimulus checks for a long time or maybe they got those checks but they had so much financial burden that they are now back to struggling to pay for food.”

Volunteers at the Tulakes food pantry in northwest Oklahoma City load sacks with food for families in need. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

The Moore Food and Resource Center has served more than 2,700 families over the past six weeks with more than one third seeking food assistance for the first time. 

A food pantry in northwest Oklahoma City operating out of a strip mall took over the empty storefront next door because of the need to store more food. 

Even though school buildings were closed for the final two months of the academic year, many continued to offer breakfast and lunch with grab-and-go setups. 

Hall, the director of school nutrition services for Oklahoma City schools, said she was scrambling in March to buy pallets of peanut butter and jelly, collect enough coolers to keep drinks cold at school drive through meal sites and was in the market for hundreds of thousands of bags. 

“I was stressing a lot about finding bags,” Hall said.

In March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued waivers allowing districts to distribute meals outside of school buildings and to no longer only provide free meals at schools where more than 50 percent of students qualified for free or reduced price lunch. 

In Oklahoma City, where more than 90 percent of students qualify, Hall said demand for free meals decreased when federal stimulus checks were initially disbursed but has quickly increased again. 

At an Oklahoma City food pantry operated by Tulakes Community Church, Sam O’Bannon, the food bank’s manager, said he saw a similar situation. 

“Our initial first weeks (during the pandemic) our numbers actually dropped from our average,” O’Bannon said. “But our contact from the Regional Food Bank said don’t be deceived by that because those stimulus checks are going to run out pretty quick and that’s exactly what happened.”

The food pantry is now serving about 75 families a week and another 125 through deliveries. 

O’Bannon said many of the new families have never visited a food pantry before and prior to the economic collapse were financially stable. 

“We’ve seen a few middle class income families and there is a deep shame every time they come and that has been hard to see,” O’Bannon said. 

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services has also received applications from Oklahomans who have never sought food assistance before. 

In response to the increased demand Bernard’s organization, Hunger Free Oklahoma, launched a hotline this week to help Oklahomans fill out the online application. The hotline has employed 12 people but plans to triple in size in the coming weeks. 

“They are all folks who got laid off or furloughed, which is kind of cool because we get to employ people who might otherwise be calling the hotline,” Bernard said. 

Hunger Free Oklahoma is advocating for federal waivers that help streamline the work of state agencies to deliver assistance. The federal government recently approved a waiver that will allow Oklahomans to use SNAP for online grocery purchases. 

Hunger Free Oklahoma has also launched a program that uses closed restaurants to supply meals for those in need. 

However, Bernard said the current federal payroll assistance program that is helping some restaurants and other businesses remain open will dry up in a few weeks.

“I think we are going to see another round of layoffs that come later,” Bernard said. 

Seeking food assistance?

Apply for SNAP

Hotline for assistance: 1-877-760-0114

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Correction: A previous version misreported the amount of food distributed by the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma in April. The correct amount is 6.2 million pounds.