'We can make a difference': Food box program reaches thousands of families across Southern Oklahoma in 2020

Sierra Rains
A volunteer with Impact Ardmore loads a vehicle with boxes of food at Dickson High School. The nationwide Farmers to Families meal box program has provided free food locally since June.

Volunteers provided free food to thousands of southern Oklahoma families struggling to make ends meet in 2020.

By the end of the year, Impact Ardmore determined that 23,880 boxes of food and 24,450 gallons of milk were distributed across a seven county area, serving close to 2,170 families per week since early June.  

The nonprofit partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to distribute fresh produce across local communities as a part of the national Farmers to Families Food Box Program. 

The program, launched in mid May, was designed to help put farmers and distributors back to work while also supporting over-burdened food banks, community and faith-based organizations and other nonprofits serving people in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Impact Ardmore Executive Director Misty Apala agreed to take on the program with State Rep. Tammy Townley, R-Ardmore, to help reach rural communities. With the help of a few local businesses and volunteers, she and Townley loaded up several SUVs and trucks to deliver the first 1,000 food boxes throughout Carter County in June. 

“Tammy knew that Impact Ardmore was doing mission and local outreach services in Ardmore and she called and asked if I’d be willing to take on a project this big, and of course, I said yes,” Apala said toward the start of the program.

Back then, they had no idea just how large the program would end up becoming. Impact Ardmore Programs Director Eythan Tibbs said the Farmers to Families Food Box Program was originally designed as a six week relief package, and was planned as a temporary measure. 

“Well that six weeks comes and goes and then they extended it for another six weeks, and that’s been extended all the way through the end of the year,” Tibbs said in late December. According to the USDA, more than 100 million food boxes have now been distributed nationwide since May 15. 

The program was set to end on Dec. 31 but will likely be extended yet again with another relief package recently approved by the federal government. 

“We’re looking at the package that they just signed in Congress, part of that relief package is for the Farmers to Families Food Box Program,” Tibbs said. “So we’ll see funds from that hopefully starting in the next couple of weeks.” 

During the first few weeks of the program, volunteers with Impact Ardmore were hand-delivering the boxes mostly by themselves, with some help from a smaller group of community organizations. As time went by, that group continued to grow. 

Several organizations from across the region ended up pitching in to help, extending the program's reach week by week. 

Volunteers load food boxes to be delivered to families across the county. Approximately 1,100 boxes were distributed on Tuesday, July 7.

“It became a pretty serious project for our little team so we were grateful to have all the help come in that grew over time,” Tibbs said. “Now we’ve got a team of volunteers that we can come in and distribute 3,000 boxes in a matter of a morning, it doesn’t even take days anymore. It’s a matter of a few hours.”

The program began in Carter County and eventually came to stretch across seven counties, with people coming from as far west as Waurika and as far east as Atoka County — and everywhere in between. 

Ardmore served as a hub for the food box program, but it’s reach into rural communities was vital, Tibbs said. While larger cities like Ardmore have more access to food banks and community organizations, some smaller communities don’t have those resources. 

“It’s easy to forget the rural communities because there’s not as many people, the need doesn’t appear to be as big,” Tibbs said. “But when you start adding all of these rural communities up, they become one of the biggest needs that there is.”

The Farmers to Families Food Box Program was designed with rural communities in mind, Tibbs said. Distributors are asked to have a plan to reach rural communities, and Impact Ardmore became one of the biggest distributors for rural communities in the state. 

Tibbs said they didn’t realize how strong the need for food was until they started the program. Many families who had lost jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic or who were in tough financial situations came to rely on the program. 

“We’ve seen thousands of people, without exaggeration, we’ve seen thousands and thousands of people come through these lines to get this food,” Tibbs said. “So you’re seeing people that are getting full balanced meals that maybe would have not had as much to eat because they just don’t have it.” 

Each box contains milk, butter, eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables — enough to sustain a family of four for about a week. Tibbs said the program has brought food insecurity into focus, especially in rural areas, and has impacted the lives of thousands. 

Should the program come to an end, Tibbs said that need will likely still be there; and the need is too great to not continue helping families with some sort of effort to replace the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. 

“We live in a first world country, there should not have to be hunger on the streets, there’s just no excuse for it,” Tibbs said. “We can make a difference and even the little strides that we can make over a long time make a big difference in the end. So when we can get everybody together and make one big effort it can really affect peoples’ lives.”