OKLAHOMA CITY - Gov. Kevin Stitt has activated 25 more members of the Oklahoma Air National Guard from the 137th Special Operations Wing to help the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma keep up with the impact of COVID-19.
The pandemic and falling oil prices have increased demand for food assistance by as much as 60 percent at the food bank, which serves 53 of 77 counties in Oklahoma, said spokeswoman Kathy Nestlen.
"We are so happy to welcome the Oklahoma Air National Guard to our facility, and we're so thankful to Gov. Stitt for activating [them April 21] and making that happen," said Nestlen. "This group is like a well-oiled machine, and just having 25 of them here has made such a difference in just these first few days. They are literally setting records for the number of emergency food boxes packed and pallets filled."
The food bank relies on 45,000 volunteers, said Nestlen. However, COVID-19 changed the way the food bank operates, forcing the facility to close to everyone but essential staff.
"That really impacts us being able to get food out – not having those volunteers," she said. "So our staff [are doing] what the volunteers used to do."
In filling that void, members of the Oklahoma Air National Guard put together boxes, filled them with non-perishable food and bread, sealed and stacked the boxes on pallets, and then encased the boxes with plastic wrap for transport. Other Guard members helped to gather drinks, juices and produce for distribution.
"Anytime there's an emergency of any magnitude – whether it be local or national – we are always just waiting to be called so that we can jump in there and help," said Senior Master Sgt. Jonah McClung, a member of the 137th Special Operations Civil Engineering Squadron. "Whenever things happen, whenever something goes down, we want to be there to help in any way, shape or form that we can."
The 25 members of the Guard from Oklahoma City are one of two teams activated to help food banks throughout the state. The other is comprised of 25 Oklahoma Air National Guardsmen from the 138th Fighter Wing in Tulsa. They are working at the Regional Food Bank for Eastern Oklahoma.
The Guard members only prepared the boxes, as opposed to making in-person deliveries. However, that did not stop them from seeing their impact.
"I think it's very rewarding to be able to build these boxes up and be able to send them out to each town around [the region]," said Airman 1st Class Ethan Rosebrook, 137th Special Operations Civil Engineering Squadron. "It's very rewarding for all of us here. While we might not be there physically passing them out, being here and making these boxes and seeing the difference in people is very uplifting."