When you leave Oklahoma City, things get rural quickly. When I first began working at the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma I thought I had a good idea of what living “in the country” was like. I envisioned life at a slower pace, a more sedate Main Street existence with no traffic jams, fewer stoplights and less stress than city life. I never envisioned hunger.
That’s a common misconception that a lot of people have. Rural life is about self-sufficiency, growing your own food and farms. That is no longer true. Rural towns are shrinking. More and more people are moving to the cities because that is where the jobs are located. In fact, according to the 2010 census 4 out of 5 Americans live in urban areas.
What happens as this population shifts is that goods and services are less and less available in rural areas. That includes access to food and assistance for the most vulnerable in our nation - children, seniors and the working poor. Food deserts are becoming more and more prevalent in rural Oklahoma as grocery stores close or relocate due to a lack of profitability and a shrinking customer base.
The reality facing many Oklahomans and Americans is a lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, especially for the most vulnerable populations among us. What do people do when they cannot access these items without driving long distances?
At the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, we are attacking this problem in multiple ways. First, we are locating Food and Resource Centers (FRCs) outside the Oklahoma City metro area. Our FRCs are designed like grocery stores including refrigeration and freezers that allow for the delivery, storage and distribution of fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables to many of these underserved communities and residents. Second, our transportation drivers add fresh produce from our central warehouse in Oklahoma City to their loads going to rural areas, and encourage agencies to take as much produce as they can safely distribute to the people they serve. Third, we are working with partners like the YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, and the Salvation Army to locate Kids Cafes in rural areas to provide meals for children after school and in the summer when school is out.
Rural food deserts are a growing problem across the Feeding America network. We need to be aggressive in finding solutions that are reproducible and sustainable across the network to equip food banks to meet this crisis. That’s why I am a part of Feeding America’s Rural Child Hunger Capacity Institute, thanks to generous support of C&S Wholesale Grocers, Inc. We are thrilled to be partnering together with food banks from across the network to produce a toolkit of ideas, innovations and resources to equip other rural hunger-relief organizations to better serve those living outside the urban core of the states across our nation.
Together, we can solve rural hunger.
*Ryan Abernathy is the senior director of programs and nutrition at Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.
**Photos courtesy of Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.