by Chris Bernard, Executive Director
2021 did not play out in the manner many of us had thought or hoped it would at the beginning of the year. While we were able to get back to some degree of normalcy for part of the year, it was not long until new variants brought about the same challenges as before. While we didn’t face full scale shutdowns, we saw inflation rise, certain businesses continue to suffer, and the need for basic supports maintained at higher than pre-pandemic levels.
The year also brought evidence of just how effective certain programs could be at fighting hunger and poverty. Increases in SNAP, Pandemic EBT, and the Child Tax Credit helped to lift thousands of Oklahomans out of poverty and/or kept them from falling deeper into crisis. Flexibilities in child nutrition programs continued to result in increased participation and access. The promising evidence of the effectiveness of these programs nearly led to a majority of both chambers supporting legislation that meant long term implementation of some of these solutions.
2021 was an interesting time for Hunger Free Oklahoma as well. We had tremendous staff growth; we built out our SNAP outreach strategy with our partners at OKDHS and the food banks; we expanded DUO into eight new communities and nine new grocery stores, transforming access to fresh fruits and vegetables for the target communities and increasing the purchase of healthy fresh fruits and vegetables by SNAP participants by 100% in participating stores; we were given the honor of representing Oklahomans when we testified to the U.S. House Committee on Rules about rural hunger and the strengths and challenges of operating federal programs in rural communities; and much more.
In 2022, Congress, HFO, and many others have a decision to make. We must decide whether we will take what we have learned, what we have created, and the countless challenges we have faced over the last two years and build upon them to reach new heights in our impact or continue to think that one day soon everything will go back to the way it was and we can abandon all the things we built for “pandemic response.”
At HFO, we have already made the decision that we will continue to build, we will leverage what we learned, we will improve and expand what we have created, and we will acknowledge our challenges. We will work through them, and we will be better for it. I have no doubt that many of our partners, public and private, and many of you have decided to do the same. But our success and likely the success of many of your efforts is, in part, dependent on whether or not Congress will decide to follow suit.
The full Build Back Better plan may not have made it through Congress, but there are many once-in-a-generation opportunities for Congress to adopt portions of the plan which will lead to long lasting impacts. Both Child Nutrition Reauthorization and the Farm Bill will be discussed in Congress this year. With these two congressional packages there is opportunity to transform the federal nutrition programs into what we now know they could be: keeping their intent, but making them more accessible, more impactful, more robust, and ultimately more effective tools to end food insecurity. If we all recognize that we must do things differently, bigger, and better to make it through this crisis and be ready for the next, why should we expect anything different from our elected officials?
Over the next year, I hope you will join us locally in our continued efforts to expand access to crucial nutrition programs across the state as we work to build a system of public and private partners sharing in the mission to end hunger. Just as importantly, I hope you will join us in asking our congressional delegation and our federal agencies to make permanent the waivers that give child nutrition programs flexibilities that make it easier for children to access food, to make permanent Summer EBT, to increase funding and increase the federal match ratio for nutrition incentive programs like Double Up Oklahoma, to keep flexibilities in WIC that made the program more adaptable, to continue to reassess the value of SNAP as costs of living increase and adjust the benefit accordingly, and to continue to look for the programs that work and fully fund them across the country.
Quite simply, we must tell Congress that we need them to take decisive action to fund and permanently implement proven solutions. We must explain that doing nothing sends us backwards and undermines everything we have built to meet the now two-year-long crisis head on.