For the 514,990 Oklahomans facing hunger, having a traditional holiday meal is often an impossible wish, making holidays like Thanksgiving a particularly emotional time.
As inflation continues to make prices of food and other necessities skyrocket, the ability to host a traditional holiday meal is less of a possibility for many families.
"Socially and culturally, there's a lot of expectations that you kind of would get to have that big Thanksgiving meal or the big Christmas meal. And a lot of people want that," Nitin Rangu, associate director of logistics at OU Food Pantry, said.
Some parents are choosing between buying food and presents for their children or paying their bills and purchasing medicine, Austin Prickett, marketing director at the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, said.
"You could be one or two missed paychecks away from not having food for your family," Prickett said.
According to a survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the price of a typical Thanksgiving meal increased 20 percent from last year and 37 percent from 2020.
"Inflation is causing the cost of groceries to go up so much. So a lot of families that may have been able to afford that extra special Thanksgiving meal … (Inflation) will put a lot of people out of having that," Christy Blair, associate director of the Share Center at Food and Shelter, said.
According to a Primerica survey, 75 percent of middle-income Americans say they are not earning enough to pay for the cost of living. As of October 2022, 4.7 percent of employed Americans held multiple jobs and 347,000 people were working two full-time positions, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve.
In 2021, Oklahoma had the 10th highest overall poverty rate in the nation, with one in six Oklahomans living in poverty. One in five Oklahoma children and one in 10 Oklahoma families live at or below the federal poverty level, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
Higher costs of living and lower wages made it difficult for people to put food on the table and pay their rent, Blair said. Yet there’s a stigma that blames the individual rather than the institutions that put them in these difficult positions, Blair said.
"In our capitalist society, we really, as Americans, value hard work and creating our own wealth. But the reality is a lot of that is a myth," Blair said. "The stigma makes people feel ashamed, rather than looking at the statistics and being able to say 'Yeah, there's a reason that this money is not adding up to (a) living wage at the end of the month.'"
Prickett said some people struggling with food insecurity feel judged for not being able to provide for themselves or their families, but it could happen to anyone.
Experiencing food insecurity or homelessness and then facing stigma on top of that can be very damaging to a person's mental health, Blair said. The longer a person experiences the trauma of homelessness or food insecurity, the harder it becomes for them to get outside of the surviving-in-the-moment mentality and plan for their future, she said.
Food insecurity is associated with a 257 percent higher risk of anxiety and a 253 percent higher risk of depression, according to BMC public health.
Experiencing homelessness can also have adverse effects on one's mental health and perpetuate existing mental health disorders. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 20 to 25 percent of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness.
There’s an enormous need to provide mental health services to those experiencing food insecurity and homelessness, Blair said.
At OU, many students and faculty are also affected by the stigma and stereotypes surrounding food insecurity, Rangu said. Rangu said the pantry often helps students who feel like they shouldn't be using the pantry’s services because there are others who need the food more than them.
"We really try to emphasize that it's okay to use us …We're here for any and all needs (and) we're going to do our best to serve as much or as little as someone might need," Rangu said.
This year, the OU Food Pantry saw an increase in the number of households usings its services, jumping from about 150 to about 450 households relying on the pantry. Rangu said he believes this illustrates the need created by COVID-19 and rising inflation rates, as well as a result of the pantry relocating to a more accessible area.
Food and Shelter and the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma reported seeing an increase in people utilizing their services as well, but, with rising inflation rates and supply shortages, meeting that growing need has been challenging.
Blair said recent price increases impacted Food and Shelter's operations, especially as the organization provides breakfast and lunch 365 days of the year. Blair said Food and Shelter is now seeking more monetary donations to help with the increase in costs.
Prickett said the Food Bank is experiencing the same issues as Food and Shelter. The Food Bank started planning ahead in order to ensure it has enough resources to serve the community, ordering food two to three weeks earlier than they have in the past, Prickett said. Because of inflation and shortages, the Food Bank started to pay more for supplies and wait longer for its arrival, he said.
The OU Food Pantry is currently packaging 400 Thanksgiving meals to give out to their clients on Tuesday, which they hope will alleviate some of the financial stress students and faculty are experiencing.
On Thanksgiving day, Food and Shelter will host a full Thanksgiving meal for about 1,800 people. The event is set to take place at Norman High School starting at 11 a.m.
"The people who spend their time with us are family, and, in a lot of ways, they really look out for each other. They really care about each other … And so the holidays are really a celebration of (that) family atmosphere that we have," Blair said.
For those celebrating with loved ones and are fortunate to not be experiencing homelessness, Blair hopes they too will extend a sense of family unity by volunteering and providing some kind of service to people who are unhoused or hungry.
"What a beautiful expression of love to be able to share with somebody who's needing a family this time of year,” Blair said.