Students across all Ardmore City Schools receive free breakfast and lunch each school day as part of the National School Lunch Program. With Ardmore students facing the highest rate of free or reduced meal eligibility in Carter County, food insecurity among children is mostly alleviated during the school year with two meals each school day.

But what happens when access to hot, fresh meals go on long holiday breaks with school kitchen staff? With the Christmas spirit in the air, many local organizations are filling in any gaps for children at a time of year when the need increases for households. During other times of the year, however, thousands of urban and rural Carter County residents will still find themselves food insecure once the Christmas spirit runs out.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a household “food-insecure” if it does not have consistent access to adequate food all year for all household members to be active and healthy. In October, the USDA said the percentage of Americans lacking regular access to nutritious food has fallen to pre-2008 recession levels, but 11% of Americans and 15% of Oklahomans in 2018 were still unsure where future meals would come from.

According to the most recent data from Feeding America, a nationwide nonprofit that coordinates a network of food banks, more than 7,600 people in Carter County, or 15.8% of the county’s population, were dealing with food insecurity at some point in 2017. Nearly 2,700 of those people in Carter County are children, and those numbers have remained mostly unchanged since at least 2015.

The reasons for inconsistent access to nutritious food can vary, from economic issues to physical locations of healthy food options. Oklahoma is one of the hungriest states in the nation, according to Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma communications director Cathy Nestlen, with 1 in 4 children facing food insecurity. Her organization operates in western and central Oklahoma with three partners and various other programs in Ardmore.

“Many of the people that are served by the 1,300 partner agencies we work with just aren’t working at jobs that pay them a living wage,” Nestlen said, adding that many elderly residents on fixed incomes may also rely on food pantries either temporarily or long term. Limited income in these households means choices must often be made between housing, utilities, medicine, and grocery bills.

A financial surprise, like unexpected auto repairs or illness, can often be a breaking point for a household’s finances, according to Nestlen. “So food continually slips down the list of priorities,” she said. “Food insecurity is directly connected to economic insecurity, so if a household is struggling to make it economically, it’s most likely they're food insecure.”

Some students at Lincoln Elementary have access to a backpack program each week that discreetly sends them home with nutritious food for the weekends. The food in the bags is provided by the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma each month, but resources over the holidays are stretched thin. Along with Lincoln Elementary, another 13 schools in Carter County participate in the backpack program to more than 550 local students.

Counselor John Credle said Lincoln students will still be sent home with these bags over the holiday despite the limited resources because local donations from Scout Fresh Foods and Kiwanis are filling gaps. “Over the holidays, because it’s a two week break in between, we try to give an extra sack,” he said. “Christmas brings extra pressure on parents...and they stretch themselves beyond their means sometimes,” he said.

Principal Myiesha Antwine and her staff at Jefferson Elementary School know that tough financial decisions are the reality for many parents. “It’s really something I want to do to just help the parents,” she said as she stood among 300 grocery bags filled with dry goods. Antwine said the bags would be a surprise for students and parents, and were sent home with every student after school on Friday.

With students not receiving breakfast and lunch at school for the next two weeks, Jefferson Elementary kitchen staff and teachers packed the bags this week to take some of the burden off of parents’ shoulders. “Kids are going to eat every single thing in the house, so here’s a little extra,” Antwine said.

The need has been recognized for many years. Jeanie Upson has been with ACS for 31 years and remembers when a former Franklin Elementary teacher brought the grocery bag idea to Jefferson Elementary in 2010. She thinks the grocery bags will give students meal options during the holiday break while their parents are at work. “I just feel that a lot of our students are going to be left home during the break and they won’t have access to the food that they are able to get at school,” Upson said.

The bags are filled with non-perishable items and many are ready-to-eat so young children will not have to use stoves or other dangerous cooking methods, Antwine said.

Financial issues are not the exclusive reason people may find themselves food insecure. With many Ardmore grocery stores located along Commerce Street and some smaller stores along Washington Street, many residents find themselves in food deserts, or large swaths of land without a supermarket or grocery store nearby.

While even the USDA admits multiple definitions of “food desert” exist, economically disadvantaged people in urban areas who live more than a mile from a grocery store are generally considered to be in a food desert; a similar person in a rural area more than 10 miles away from a grocery store also lives in a food desert. According to 2017 data from the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, 10.7% of Carter County residents--nearly 4,800 people--live in a food desert.

Food deserts may be easy to understand in rural areas, but the proximity of restaurants, convenience stores, and other small shops with food items may suggest people in urban areas are not isolated from regular meals. However the USDA and other nonprofit groups, including the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and Feeding America, factor the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables when considering food deserts.

According to a 2017 report by the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, other factors may skew public perceptions of food deserts. “Income requirements utilized by USDA to define a food desert may make the problem appear less severe than the reality many Oklahomans experience,” the report said.

For young children in these food deserts while parents work over the school break, meal choices can be limited. For hundreds of other households in the area, this food insecurity results in physical and emotional stress that boils over into work and school.

Teachers, administrators, and support staff at Ardmore schools, however, continue to help close the gap between children and nutritious meals.