Young and Hungry in OK - 405 Magazine

Young and Hungry in OK

Chronic hunger should never be a part of growing up. In Oklahoma, individuals and groups are finding ways to help underserved kids get the nutrition they need.


You might not think of Pepsi and good nutrition in the same mental breath, but the corporation is doing more than making refreshing cola: Oklahoma City is one of 18 major cities nationwide to participate in PepsiCo’s Food for Good program. PepsiCo employees started the outreach to young people in Plano, Texas, in 2009 as part of a company strategy to meet tangible needs in the community.

“Our employees talked to people in the community, and one thing kept coming up: childhood hunger,” says Jonathan Lauren, the innovation manager for the Food for Good program.

As a result of the community conversations, PepsiCo dedicated trucks, technology and food to an outreach effort to deliver nutritious food to underserved children in Plano. The program now reaches 18 cities, and Lauren said the goal is 25 cities by 2025. In Oklahoma City, PepsiCo partners with Feed the Children to identify ideal locations to send trucks carrying nutritious food and juice, in order to help feed kids around central Oklahoma. Thanks to innovative cold-box technology, the food can be kept at a stable temperature for up to 10 hours, which means the trucks also can hit rural communities between OKC and Tulsa.

“Large cities have after-school programs and summer programs for feeding kids,” Lauren says, “but rural communities have fewer resources, so we developed technology that allows us to reach those underserved, rural communities.”

According to Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, more than 600,000 people in Oklahoma are food insecure every year – a number that includes homeless and underserved youth and children.

PepsiCo has joined with an informal network of community, government, individual and school-based programs to try to solve the problem.

The easiest place to find children – most of them, anyway – is in school, so beginning with the Fall 2017 semester, OKC Public Schools is implementing the Community Eligibility Provision, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that feeds students living in low-income areas free meals at school.

Oklahoma City Public Schools School Nutrition Services Director Kevin Poncé

Kevin Poncé, the school nutrition services director for OCPS, said that expenses related to all food, materials, equipment and labor associated with CEP will be reimbursed by the USDA.

“It’s a win-win for students and the school district,” Poncé explains. “There has always been a stigma attached to students who got free and reduced lunches; many kids would eat nothing so as to avoid that stigma. Thanks to CEP, the stigma goes away.”

OCPS has approximately 45,000 students enrolled, and CEP applies to all of them district-wide, but Poncé said the district calculates that it only feeds about 24 percent of high school students, a number that is consistent nationally. That means 76 percent of high school students have other food sources, including work revenue, or they don’t access school services.

Some of those kids – approximately 2,000 young people and their families in 2016 – go to Youth Services of Oklahoma County for assistance. The nonprofit offers comprehensive services to youth, including counseling, shelter and vocational assistance, but its first set of services is related to basic needs: food, clothing, shelter.

Kami Kuykendall, president and CEO of YSOC, said the organization keeps a stocked pantry on-site with food that youth can prepare “in their circumstances.” That means non-perishable food items that can be consumed without preparation, as well as food products that can be microwaved or prepared on a stovetop.

“There has always been a stigma attached to students who got free and reduced lunches; many kids would eat nothing so as to avoid that stigma. Thanks to CEP, the stigma goes away.” 

“We teach young people how to budget, how to shop and how to cook for themselves on-site,” Kuykendall says. “Some of them live with parents, but many live and work on their own, so circumstances vary greatly.”

YSOC typically serves young people between 12 and 21 years of age, but Kuykendall said they have had older and younger clients, too. The food is provided by donations and in-kind support, as well as through the efforts of strategic partnerships with OCPS, Putnam City Public Schools, the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and the United Way.

Kathy Brown is the homeless education coordinator for OCPS, and she partners with YSOC regularly to help provide food and support for the more than 5,400 homeless youth in Oklahoma City.

“All of those kids aren’t unaccompanied,” Brown says, “but many are. Some families are living in their cars, and many are living on the street. Because students lose years to homelessness, we also have students who are 18 and 19 years old in the programs.”

Older teens are the hardest demographic to care for in terms of food security. Mobility, willingness to access services, jobs and other concerns make teenagers hard to wrangle. After-school programs, including OCPS’s new pilot supper program, work better for elementary and middle school students. The schools have become the center of efforts to combat childhood hunger, and community and government agencies rely on expertise, support and identification to make programs successful.

Oklahoma City Public Schools Homeless Education Coordinator Kathy Brown

The backpack program is a model example of what schools and nonprofits can do when they coordinate efforts. Angie Doss, marketing and communications director for the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, said that in 2016, the backpack program served 19,000 students in 512 schools in 53 counties, making it one of the most effective, far-reaching tools in the state.

“The backpacks are distributed on Fridays, and the kids bring them back on Monday,” Doss explains. “They contain kid-friendly food that is easy to eat, because we can’t assume they have access to kitchen equipment or even microwaves in their circumstances.”

Each backpack is equipped with enough food for a child to eat three meals a day for the entire weekend. They are stocked with applesauce, canned fruit with pop-tops, dry cereal, shelf-stable (powdered) milk, etc. The food comes from donations to and purchases by the RFBO. The organization also stocks 42 pantries in middle and high schools in 13 counties in central and western Oklahoma.

In addition to the nonprofit, school-based, corporate and community programs, individuals can get involved with the fight against hunger, too. Aley Cristelli runs the new Pine Pantry in the Plaza District. The idea came from a Facebook post featuring a similar pantry idea in McKinney, Texas. Cristelli researched the legal issues, because she, like many people, was afraid that giving away food could lead to liability issues – and when she was satisfied that so-called Good Samaritan laws covered her philanthropic goals, she launched the pantry.

Pine Pantry is based on the “take what you need; leave what you can” approach to charity. The pantry is located between Aurora and Sasquatch in the Plaza District, and it’s slightly hidden from the street so that people in need can “shop” with some privacy. Cristelli checks on it every couple of days, but because she doesn’t know who takes what, it’s impossible to gauge the reach of the food pantry. Still, food is moving through there, and on the occasions when she has left toys, they disappear quickly, which she takes to mean that families are accessing her pantry to feed children.

The Pine Pantry has been so successful that Sunnyside Diner intends to open a similar version adjacent to the restaurant very soon. Cristelli has been consulting with Sunnyside on best practices, and she’s excited to see her idea grow in the metro.

All the organizations we spoke to said they are happy to receive donations, and nonprofits such as YSOC are in need of volunteers, as well. Getting food to more than 50,000 kids is not impossible, but it does take a network of concerned Oklahomans to move kids from food insecurity to well fed.