A Strong Backbone: Building Anti-Hunger Coalitions in Oklahoma

Molly PifkoEmerson, Field, Updates

Above: Molly Pifko, 29th Class Emerson Hunger Fellow, visits the Oklahoma State Capitol in September, 2022.

On a sunny September afternoon, I arrived in Tulsa, Oklahoma for the first time, along with my dad and my small bumper-stickered car packed with my possessions. As we exited the highway, I tried to take the advice of an aptly-placed billboard which read: “Take a deep breath. Repeat as needed.” A born-and-raised New Englander, I had never been to Oklahoma or even any of its surrounding states, but I knew that it would be home for the next five months. And while I was extremely nervous about acclimating to work and life in an unfamiliar place, I also knew that I had a great deal to learn from my time in Tulsa and at my field placement organization, Hunger Free Oklahoma (HFO).

HFO was founded in 2016 to bring a unified, statewide voice to the issues and solutions surrounding hunger, with a goal to ensure all Oklahomans have access to affordable, nutritious food. They work towards this goal through a variety of methods, including advocating for policy solutions, providing resources to help connect Oklahomans with grocery assistance programs, and forming and facilitating coalitions and partnerships in the anti-hunger space. Across Oklahoma, 14.5% of households and 19.2% of children are food insecure, making Oklahoma one of only five states with a food insecurity rate of 14.5% or higher. Of the thirteen organizations across the country that hosted Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellows from the 29th class, HFO is located in the area with the highest rates of food insecurity. These statistics— though daunting—are also unjust, unnecessary, and solvable. A large part of what I learned through my field placement was that no one organization or approach holds all the solutions; rather, one of the keys to reducing and eventually ending hunger in Oklahoma is the creation of strong networks of partners utilizing diverse approaches.

As an Emerson Fellow placed at HFO, I had the opportunity to engage with several of the coalitions that the organization supports. One of my long-term projects involved meeting with the founders and long-term members of the Oklahoma Childhood Food Security Coalition (CFSC), conducting short interviews on the group’s past, present, and future. Through this project I had the chance to hear about the work of many different organizations working towards childhood food security in Oklahoma, from YMCAs, to food banks, to administrators of the Chickasaw Nation’s nutrition programs. A consistent theme when it came to what members valued most about CFSC was the way it facilitated relationships, creating space for the formation of a more cohesive and collaborative system working towards childhood food security. HFO was and continues to be in an excellent position to create these kinds of spaces because, unlike many other anti-hunger organizations in the state, we do not provide food directly, focusing instead on strengthening and connecting Oklahomans with nutrition programs like SNAP, WIC, and School Meals. I heard from CFSC members that especially as COVID-19 upended so many aspects of our food system and strained organizational capacity, having a strong, consistent backbone network which could share resources and knowledge about the rapidly changing policy environment was vital to adapting quickly and effectively to these changes.

One of the advantages of an Emerson Fellow’s unique positionality within an organization is that I got the chance to move between several different projects, facilitating the sharing of best practices and key learnings between them. For instance, meeting with members of the well-established Childhood Food Security Coalition gave me a better understanding of HFO’s role in creating other successful coalitions going forward. A few exciting new examples of HFO’s engagement with communities and community partners are HFO’s new Youth Advisory Council (YAC), which engages high school students in the Tulsa area to improve school-based nutrition programs, and ongoing work to create Hunger-Free Community Cohorts at the county or local level to share best practices, gather input, and create plans to coordinate local, community-specific responses to hunger.

Finally, a major part of my community-engagement work in Tulsa involved the planning of a lived experience cohort which anticipates launching its pilot year in fall of 2023. As we work towards an effective, collaborative, and equitable anti-hunger movement in Oklahoma and across the country, it is important to recognize that for too long, the anti-hunger movement has either neglected or tokenized the advocacy of the people actually experiencing hunger and poverty. This exclusion has done a disservice to both people experiencing hunger and those seeking to combat it. Moreover, it is fundamentally unjust that racism, classism, and other systemic barriers have excluded people with this lived experience from decisions that directly impact their lives.

As HFO works to target the root causes of hunger by unraveling these systems of inequity, we strived to create a cohort that will foster strong and trusting relationships and support people with lived experience in advocating for themselves and their communities. The planning process for this cohort involved reviewing existing resources and models for success, and assessing the guiding values and practices that made the most sense for HFO and the Tulsa community at this time. Throughout all of this planning, I also came to understand the importance of adaptability and receptiveness in this work, since a truly successful cohort will be one that grows to meet the needs and desires of its members, not just the organization.

As I repacked my car and watched the Tulsa skyline shrink away in my rearview mirror at the end of my field placement, I was filled with a profound sense of gratitude. From a place of uncertainty and fear, I had come to love Oklahoma and the compassionate, dedicated, welcoming workplace and community that I found there. Being an Emerson Fellow has pushed me to think of myself as a part of a community that I might never have even visited otherwise, and given me the opportunity to grow as an advocate and as a human being. It has taught me how to lean into my strengths and find the people who have the ability and knowledge that I do not have yet. It has given me the chance to be part of a cohort of some of the most thoughtful, creative, and inspiring people I know—a cohort which teaches me new things every time we gather together.

As I continue on this fellowship journey with my policy placement at the American Public Human Services Association, I know that I will continue to apply what I learned at Hunger Free Oklahoma about building relationships and breaking down silos. No one person, organization, or approach can accomplish everything that is needed to address hunger, poverty, and other systemic injustices in this country. But each of us has a role to play. I am so grateful for the Emerson Fellowship for helping me and my cohort to find ours.

About the Authors

Pifko headshot

Molly Pifko

Emerson Fellow

Originally from Lynnfield, Massachusetts, Molly Pifko recently graduated with a B.A. in Human Ecology from College of the Atlantic. As an undergraduate, she used this interdisciplinary major to combine interests in politics, environmental law and policy, US history, and communication. These interests have led her to spend the last four years working and volunteering for progressive candidates, working as a writing tutor, peer mentor, and legal research assistant at the college, and interning in her local congressional office. Molly’s passion for food justice was fostered at an early age through her temple’s anti-hunger work, and as an Emerson fellow, she is excited to continue learning about how both public policy and community support can be used to take on hunger and the systems of economic, environmental, and political injustice which perpetuate it.

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