There are a couple of lines in W.H. Auden's famous poem "September 1, 1939" that point out the all-consuming nature of hunger: "Hunger allows no choice / To the citizen or the police."
What choice does any hungry person have but to find food to relieve the pangs of an empty stomach? What else can a hungry person do but put aside everything else and seek basic sustenance?
In Central Oklahoma this summer, a growing number of people find themselves without enough food, according to local leaders and statistical information from different agencies. The situation is already tragic and will probably only get worse because of the recession.
The numbers dealing with food insecurity are alarming. In May, the number of people receiving food stamps in Oklahoma set an all-time record and was 16.2 percent higher than last year, according to the Department of Human Services. A staggering 474,971 people received some type of food stamp assistance, in a state with a population of approximately 3.6 million.
Meanwhile, personal income declined last quarter, and the state's unemployment rate has gone up in recent months. These categories are better than the national averages, but an important caveat is Oklahoma continues to rank high in poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the state ranked 10th in the nation in poverty in 2007. As it stands, 28 percent of children under 5, and 23 percent of children under 18, live in poverty in the state. The government set the poverty level at $20,650 for a family of four in 2007.
But hunger affects the elderly as well as children. According to the Hunger in Oklahoma Web site, "Of the elderly who receive food through Oklahoma's Food Bank System, 32 percent report having to choose between buying food or paying for medicine or medical care."
In 2007, a legislative task force examined the hunger problem in Oklahoma and produced the "Hunger Is Not OK" report. It found that "Oklahoma is one of the hungriest states in the nation," with 14.6 percent of the population "food insecure." That was before the national recession and the record-breaking number of food stamp recipients.
State Sen. Andrew Rice, who sponsored the bill along with state Sen. Kris Steele to create the task force, said he has heard about long lines at food pantries in small Oklahoma towns this year. "So all indications on the ground in Oklahoma show an increased problem in early 2009, and it seems even worse in rural areas where there are less programs to assist people," he said.
The task force report recommended the state take advantage of more federal food programs, increase the capacity of food charity organizations, and strengthen family economic and community food stability.
The second recommendation points to a way Central Oklahomans can help the less fortunate: The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma accepts money and food donations from individuals and groups. The most needed items, according to its Web site, are canned meat, canned vegetables, canned fruit, canned tuna, peanut butter, rice and beans.
The hunger problem will not go away without a community effort.
Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and the author of the Okie Funk blog.