Melissa Sobolik is the Director of Agency and Client Services at the Great Plains Food Bank and is one of the individuals working to target hunger gaps. Melissa highlights how the Great Plains Food Bank plays a role in finding creative and innovative solutions to hunger and its underlying causes.
North Dakota has a great economy and a low unemployment rate, yet 1 in 10 North Dakotans find themselves in need of food assistance. That’s over 77,000 of our neighbors reaching out to food pantries, shelters or soup kitchens every year. Nearly 40% of them are children and another 12% are seniors. In addition, the USDA estimates that 27% of the food produced in the US never reaches the dinner table. And for every 3 meals we eat, a fourth meal goes to waste. Our role at the Great Plains Food Bank (GPFB) is to find the food that is going to waste and get it into the hands of those who need it.
WHO WE ARE
The mission of the GPFB is to end hunger through community partnerships in North Dakota and western Minnesota. We are the largest hunger-relief organization in ND and serve as its only food bank. We are one of 19 programs of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota and a member of Feeding America, the nation’s food bank network.
We operate out of a 36,000 square feet statewide distribution facility and have a fleet of refrigerated trucks that travel a half a million miles each year delivering food to our partner agencies. Partner agencies are hunger relief programs like food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, low income residential programs, etc. In 2013, the GPFB distributed 12.4 million pounds of food, equating to 10.4 million meals. We have a staff of 30 that is supported by over 4,800 volunteers annually.
The food comes from a variety of sources: 84% is donated by manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers and growers; another 10% is in the form of government commodities; 4% is purchased; and 2% comes from community food drives. Once the food is received in our warehouse, it’s immediately placed into our online inventory, where our 318 partner agencies login and place their order. Partner agencies are able to “shop” online once a month to order the products they need, in quantities that work for them. Our fleet then delivers the food to the agencies spanning 112 communities so they can begin packing food boxes or serving meals. With a commitment to food safety and nutrition, we also give our partner agencies access to a growing amount of perishable product (e.g., dairy, bread, fresh fruits and vegetables) on a regular basis.
All of our work is done in the spirit of leadership, innovation, integrity and collaboration and before any decision is made, we ask ourselves “how will this impact the hungry person?” Our goal of ending hunger is possible only with the partnership and collaboration of many organizations, businesses and people.
CREATING A HUNGER FREE NORTH DAKOTA STUDY
We knew that in order to truly end hunger, we need to expand our services and launch new programs. But first, we needed a clear picture of the existing environment. In 2008, we partnered with North Dakota Community Action Partnership, North Dakota Department of Commerce, NDSU Extension Services, USDA Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center and the Otto Bremer Foundation to initiate the first ever comprehensive study of the statewide charitable feeding network and the clients they serve, Creating a Hunger Free North Dakota.The study identified unmet client needs, geographical gaps in service, constraints faced by providers and barriers clients encounter when seeking services. A series of focus groups and surveys with clients and partner agencies led us to these 6 key findings:
These findings laid the framework for a progressive strategic plan at the GPFB and spurred the creation of the Creating A Hunger Free North Dakota Task Force; the first entity of its kind that brings organizations, government, businesses and individuals together in the effort to end hunger.
COMMUNITY BASED SOLUTIONS
The concept of food banking was simple; getting food that would have otherwise gone to waste into the hands of those who need it. We now know that that’s not enough. We need to push the envelope of our traditional work with new programs, new ideas and a new holistic picture of the hungry person. Since the study, we have changed our “business as usual” by altering operations, policies and creating new programs to respond to the changing needs of our partner agencies and clients. We know there isn’t a silver bullet to end hunger; instead the solutions are as unique as their communities. We believe it’s crucial to take the time to understand each community and find the right community based solution.
Serving 54 counties, we prioritize our work in the counties that have the most need or are considered “under-served.” Under-served status is determined by the number of pounds distributed (by the GPFB/partner agency) per the number of people living in poverty by county. When that number is less than half of the national average (as provided by Feeding America), the county is considered under-served and a priority for our work at the GPFB.
Once a county is identified as a priority, our team works on a number of fronts to find the best tools for the county. We build and strengthen the capacity of the existing hunger-relief partners in that county by providing them with hands-on training and best practices from their peers. We seek out community members who have a good idea of the issues to explore if new programming is appropriate. We find other organizations and non-profits already invested in the community and offer support and collaboration. Our solutions look different everywhere we go. We have had some great successes using these new programs and tools:
ON THE HORIZON
What’s next for us? We will continue to find creative and innovative solutions to address hunger and its underlying causes. A few of the exciting projects we have planned for 2014 are:
We’ve come a long way in our history; but we still have a ways to go. We believe ending hunger is a shared responsibility, and the right thing to do. We invite you to join us. To learn more about our hunger-relief work, like us on Facebook or visit us at www.greatplainsfoodbank.org