For discussion

March 2014

End hunger through community partnerships

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.

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. 

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:

  • Significant portions of North Dakota are under-served by the charitable feeding network;
  • Clients encounter barriers in accessing the network;
  • Providers are strained by increased demand and limited resources;
  • Providers expand and adapt their services to meet client needs;
  • Sources and types of food utilized by the network are in major transition; and
  • Opportunities exist for heightened collaboration between the charitable feeding network and federal nutrition programs.

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.

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:

  • Capacity Building: Often times the volunteers who run food pantries have no formal training and are simply doing the best they can with what they were given. To ensure that hunger-relief volunteers have the necessary skills and tools to end hunger, we offer a range of free trainings from online webinars to one-on-one coaching calls to annual regional meetings.
  • BackPack Program: During the school year more than 33,000 children across North Dakota qualify for and greatly rely on the free and reduced lunch program to meet their daily nutritional needs. But on weekends, many of these children struggle with hunger. The BackPack Program tackles hunger head on by providing a bag full of kid-friendly, easy-to-prepare food to children to take home on Fridays.
  • Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP): CSFP is a federal nutrition program aimed at seniors (over age 60) who are low income. Every other month, seniors get 2 boxes and a bag of shelf stable products supplemented with perishable items (e.g., fresh produce and bakery) from the GPFB.
  • Mobile Food Pantry:  Essentially a food pantry on wheels, we target distributions in communities that don’t have a traditional food pantry and are under-served.  A truck comes into a community loaded with pre-packed food boxes from the GPFB and it’s delivered directly out of the back of the truck to those in need. We currently operate quarterly drops in over 20 different communities across the state. 
  • Perishable Distributions: In response to the abundance of perishable products with a short shelf life, the GPFB started Perishable Distributions in rural areas across the state, primarily on reservations. A truck loaded with fresh produce, dairy, bread and other perishable items delivers pallets of food to a community where volunteers help distribute the items to clients.
  • SNAP Outreach: In 2008 we started a partnership with the ND Department of Human Services to offer Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) prescreening and application assistance for those who could benefit from the federal nutrition program.
  • Summer Food Service Program (SFSP): Summer months are particularly hard on students who no longer have school breakfast or lunch to rely on. SFSP is a federal nutrition program to serve students meals throughout the summer to ensure their nutritional needs are met when school isn’t in session.

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:

  • Hunger Free County Project: In under-served counties, we plan to “dive deep” into the county and the communities, mapping community assets and identifying gaps. We will research the demographics, conduct focus groups with residents/key stakeholders and spend significant time understanding the unique challenges and opportunities the county is facing as far as hunger, transportation, housing, childcare, education, workforce and other related social issues. The goal is to work with the community to find creative, community based solutions to address hunger and the underlying causes.
  • Client Focus Groups: We recognize that there are many challenges and barriers to accessing the food support systems in our state and we want to conduct focus groups with clients and potential clients to get a better understanding of those barriers. Then we’ll work with our partner agencies to eliminate or decrease the barriers while also launching an education/awareness campaign aimed at making obtaining assistance easier.
  • Increase in CSFP and SFSP Participation: We don’t believe you have to always reinvent the wheel or find new solutions to be successful; sometimes the programs readily available aren’t harnessed to their full potential. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP/Senior Commodities) and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) are successful federal nutrition programs that are under-utilized in North Dakota. We plan to expand the program by recruiting new partners and clients in all corners of the state.

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

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