Regional Food Bank Struggles from Drought-Induced Livestock Shortage

Jul 2, 2014

Regional Food Bank volunteers fill food sacks for distribution in one of its children's feeding programs.
Credit Quinton Chandler / KOSU

Recent years of drought have led to a huge reduction in Oklahoma’s cattle population and record high prices. This year is no different.

Less rain means less grazing, a weaker wheat harvest, higher prices for grain, and on and on the costs go. But, the drought may also make it more difficult for Oklahoma farmers to lend a hand in the state’s fight against hunger.

KOSU’s Quinton Chandler reports less rain may mean fewer livestock donations to the Regional Food Bank.

According to the Food Bank 1 out 4 children in Oklahoma are at risk of going to bed hungry every single day. After an elementary student passed out in his school lunch line back in 2003 the charity decided to launch its’ food for kids back pack program. They pack food into little bags and ship them to schools around the state so kids can go home over the weekend with enough to keep them fed until their next school breakfast or lunch.

Angie Gaines is with the Food Bank. We’re in the organization’s warehouse watching dozens of volunteers pack the food into small plastic sacks just a little bigger than a sandwich bag.

“Applesauce, nuts, raisins, and cereal,” Gaines lists the bags’ contents.  “This is going to last them for about two and a half meals over the weekend and we also alternate the sacks every other week so the children are getting more of a variety of food.  Last year we served over 15,000 kids and that was every week. That means we have to have a lot of sacks ready for the first week of school.”

Today’s sacks are actually for another of the food bank’s programs but the volunteers are putting just about the same kind of food inside the same bags used in the back pack program. There’s just one big difference. A special ingredient that goes into the kids packs during the school year is missing.  

“It’s either a beef stick or a pork stick,” says Rodney Bivens, the Food Bank’s Executive Director. He’s talking about that special ingredient.  A piece of meat.  A protein source for the kids taken from animals mostly raised right here in Oklahoma.

“We do a survey every year,” Bevins says.  “We always ask them which are their favorites and by far the beef sticks and the pork sticks come back on the top three every year by almost all the children. They just absolutely love them.”

But before the kids can get those sticks that they love so much, a farmer has to donate an animal, a cow or a hog. The food bank needs 52 of these animals to fill the sacks for one school year but they’re not all that easy to donate - cows more so than hogs.

Oklahoma State University professor Dr. Derrell Peel says pork prices are kind of high right now but are relatively nowhere near the record high cattle prices.

“An animal that represented a $600-$700 dollar donation maybe three years ago today may represent a donation of $1100 - $1200,” Dr. Peel says.

Thad Doye is a farmer with 85 head of cattle. He also oversees donations to the food bank for Oklahoma Farm Bureau. He thinks the steep cost is definitely a factor but also says farmers tend to be generous by nature and believes some will continue to find ways to donate.

Bivens thinks Thad may be right. Still, he says drought has had a bigger impact than he’d like.

“The donations have continued to go up but it’s not because the drought hasn’t had an effect,” Bivens says.  “I think we would have more livestock donated had it not been for the drought. I think some farmers and ranchers thought twice before they donated.” 

Since the program started 62 hogs have been donated thanks to both farmers and FFA chapters around the state. And there’ve been 75 cows donated. However, most of those cows didn’t come from individual farmers but an organization—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—gave 52 head.

“The church has numerous heads of cattle. It’s in the thousands I’m sure,” says Kelly Batt.  Her church is considering another donation of at least 47 head to help fill the food bank’s quota. Right now donations stand at 28 hogs and only 5 cows. 

So where are the Oklahoma farmers? Why can’t they fill the gap?

Dr. Peel believes it isn’t a question of generosity.

“An awful lot of these ranchers have been in drought, they have reduced cattle numbers they have reduced incomes,” Dr. Peel says.  “Even if they’re willing to from the value standpoint they just don’t have as many animals right now and it’s a bigger percentage of their total business if they donate right now.”

And they don’t have the same resources as the church, which Kelly says has thousands of cattle grazing fields across the country.

Dr. Peel says in two to four years animal numbers will begin to increase and cattle prices may begin to fall. That may mean a break for farmers and potentially larger more frequent donations. When I asked Thad with Farm Bureau if he would donate from his herd this year he said he’ll have to run the numbers first but his wheat harvest wasn’t the disaster he thought it would be so he might come up with at least one animal to donate. Hopefully, other farmers can do the same.