A fresh approach to fighting hunger

STILLWATER – Jeff Marlow can tell you 100 different ways to repurpose that rotisserie chicken you picked up at the local grocery store. A unique skill, it's one he calls on frequently in his role as executive chef at the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma.

The food bank, based in Tulsa, was the first in the nation to install a culinary kitchen designed to produce meals from perishable items donated from local grocers and other partners.

These days the kitchen is a source of hundreds of unquestionably flavorful and always nutritious meals on a weekly basis, benefitting Oklahomans of all ages in need.

“At the end of the day, I love being a chef and I love the creativity, but what's most important is what I've done with the skills I've been blessed with and using those to serve my community in need,” Marlow said.

Make no mistake, there is a desperate need for the services the food bank and its kitchen provide – not just across the 24 counties the agency serves with the support of 450 community partners, but the entire state.

Food insecurity, or according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the lack of regular access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle, is a real thing and thousands of Oklahomans experience it on a daily basis.

In fact, more than 656,000 Oklahomans are food insecure, which is enough to fill a 60,000-seat football stadium 11 times.

“We're one of the hungriest states in the nation,” said Janice Hermann, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist. “In Oklahoma, 17 percent or 1 in 6 people suffer from food insecurity. That includes older adults, who a lot of the time, are the hidden hungry.”

A variety of programs are run out of the innovative kitchen.

For instance, two mobile eateries travel to low-income housing facilities, churches with food pantries, senior homes and other sites Tuesdays through Fridays.

In the course hitting multiple sites in a day, Jeremy Johnson, sous chef and manager of the eateries, estimates they serve 300 to 500 meals daily, free of charge. In fact, that outreach has grown annually in the last four years, jumping from 7,000 meals to 36,000.

The kitchen partners with different agencies to prepare meals, including one initiative this summer which provides 400-500 meals a day for children.

Marlow also leads a 16-week culinary trade program aimed at giving individuals in need of a second chance an opportunity to develop culinary skills along with key life skills. The goal? To change lives.

“We teach lots of food safety, knife skills, basic cooking methods,” Marlow said. “Even if they don't want to be in the food industry when they leave here, we're hoping they took something and learned something from us.”

Since as part of the kitchen's novel approach, the majority of ingredients that go into daily menus are donated through local grocers and other partners, chefs don't always know what they'll have to work with from day to day.

“It's kind of like a mystery basket everyday,” Marlow said.

Though the staff works from a key ingredient list, this is where the creativity and, frequently the encyclopedic knowledge of what to do with a rotisserie chicken, come in.

“When we get different kinds of protein and we see what we have, which depends on the season and the kinds of vegetables coming in, then we prepare our meal off that,” Marlow said.

For instance, on one day in July, chefs put to good use a shipment of ground beef and a boatload of fresh vegetables and savory herbs from the kitchen's garden to assemble a delicious Bolognese sauce which was served over penne pasta. Garlic herb French bread and a salad rounded out the meal, which fed families and veterans in the Tulsa area on mobile eatery stops.

“I think that's the coolest part about working in the kitchen here at the food bank, more than any other position. We get to see our clients, especially on the food truck,” Marlow said. “We see the smiles on their faces and we know we're making a difference in people's lives out there in the community.”

Although people may equate food insecurity with homelessness, statistically that's not necessarily the case, said Eileen Bradshaw, executive director of the Food Bank.

“There are certainly homeless people who are hungry, but 97 percent of the clients our food bank serves have homes,” she said. “They are people who are vibrant members of the community, they just don't have food.”

Food insecurity plays out differently from household to household. Though it generally spikes at the end of the month, sometimes once families cover basic expenses, there's just not much left for the food budget until the next pay day.

In other situations, maybe there's food in the house, but it may not be the most nutritious.

“If all you have is the five for $1 Ramen packets, that's not doing anything for your body, especially if that's all you're eating for the last week of the month,” Bradshaw said. “We know there are families where that's really what it looks like if they can't find assistance elsewhere. So food insecurity is missed meals but it's also meals that might as well have been missed.”

Ultimately, even if you are really not moved by any faith or moral argument toward feeding the less fortunate, Bradshaw stressed that food insecurity is an economic issue.

“We may think we don't know anybody who's hungry or we might think we live in communities unfamiliar or untouched by hunger, but we're tethered together as citizens,” she said. “If we prosper, we prosper together. The converse of that is true. If there's so many who are food insecure, that's going to have an impact on all our lives, the quality of life and jobs. It's just a reality. We can't ignore the issue because we'll all pay for it.”

The Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma and the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, which is based in Oklahoma City and covers the other 53 counties in the state, are the largest private hunger-relief organizations in the state.

According to 2015 statistics, the food banks annually distribute 68.8 million pounds of food, enough to feed more than 160,000 people each week, including 59,200 children.

Additional resources for low-income families and youth who may be food insecure include Extension's Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.