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Collaborative Progress: Navigating the Nonlinear Path to End Hunger in Oklahoma

Portrait of Alfred Gary smiling at the camera in an outdoor setting

by Alfred Gary III, Congressional Hunger Center’s Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow

Just eight months ago, I received an email which said the following: “Hunger and poverty exist EVERYWHERE.” The reminder came a few weeks after accepting an invitation to join the Congressional Hunger Center’s 30th class of Emerson Fellows. For those not familiar with the program, the Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellowship trains and inspires new leaders in the movement to end hunger and poverty in the United States. Fellows gain vital first-hand experience through placements with community-based organizations across the country coupled with policy-focused organizations in Washington, D.C.

When telling people about my placement at Hunger Free Oklahoma (HFO), I encounter various responses, ranging from eyebrow raises and personal testimonies of food insecurity, to a series of questions. I have welcomed the fact that I will not always have an easy solution, nonetheless, each conversation reminds me of what brought me halfway across the country from my hometown of Buffalo, New York to the Sooner State.

Spending five months in Oklahoma gave me the green light to explore its two largest cities. Though only a one hour and 30-minute commute connects the two municipalities, each city has created its own individual personality. During my placement I lived in the state’s capital, Oklahoma City, a denser municipality known for its diversity and unique districts. My brief stint in Tulsa, the cultural and arts center of Oklahoma, included a trip to its own historic Greenwood District. Once known as “Black Wall Street,” what remains is the footprint of racial violence and institutional racism. Despite this dark history, my conversations in Tulsa left an impression of persistence and the galvanizing power of community.

There is significant value in creating a concise message, and HFO’s mission is as succinct as they get; “Leveraging the power of collaboration to solve hunger in Oklahoma by improving systems, policies, and practices.” From day one, I have been able to witness the collaborative effort that makes HFO a respected partner in the fight to solve hunger. In recent weeks I have been able to see that progress is not always linear, but it is important to prioritize relationships in the long term. Addressing complex social problems such as hunger, poverty, and systemic racism calls for deliberate collective impact and true co-creation.

Last October, I had the pleasure of providing on-site support for Hunger Free Oklahoma’s Hungry for Action 2023 Conference. The statewide anti-hunger conference hosted over three hundred attendees representing an estimated two hundred organizations. It was energizing to see so many faces from diverse communities gather in the state capital with the intention to not only learn but take action to ensure all Oklahomans have access to affordable, nutritious food. To see those same faces and organizations reappear in weekly/monthly collaborations and coalitions inspires me as I continue my own commitment to identifying solutions that can eradicate poverty, hunger, and food inequity.

During my time with HFO, I used guidance from Hunger Free Oklahoma’s Policy, Programs, and Executive teams to support a handful of projects. Some of the projects I supported included developing literature on state-specific food insecurity facts to educate candidates running for state legislature and facilitating discussions with community members about how to effectively address food insecurity in Oklahoma. Through these encounters, I have come to terms that my work has only commenced.

Late last year, President/CEO Chris Bernard was recipient of an innovation award that acknowledged his efforts and the relentless work of HFO staff and its partners. In a December 2023 update, Bernard reflected on his acceptance which included some familiar words. With a “lockstep” effort starting from community to policy makers, it is the role of community, organizations, and institutions to scale and sustain multifaceted solutions to end hunger.

Collective impact work is in every way challenging. Even so, it would be difficult to look past the energetic “can-do” spirit of the Oklahoman. The Sooner State epitomizes inspiration and persistence, exhibited by American Indians and Black Americans, some of the earliest settlers in Oklahoma.

Working together for a hunger free Oklahoma.

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