BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — As the sun set behind an overcast sky in early December, deepening the cold of the late afternoon, Jesse Rennich stood in line with about 30 others before an Adopt-a-Block food distribution drop at Tatley Place in south Bismarck.
Dressed in jeans and wearing a hoodie under an open flannel shirt, Rennich held onto the cold metal handle of a child-size red wagon with a gloveless hand. He used the wagon to transport what would amount to three meals for his family.
As a part-time worker, Rennich had been coming to the distribution site for several months.
“It helps supplement our food,” said Rennich, who lives with his girlfriend and 3-year-old daughter. “It’s hard asking for help. It’s a subject that’s uncomfortable to talk about.”
But hunger also is a problem that has grown amid the coronavirus pandemic, The Bismarck Tribune reported.
America is the “breadbasket of the world” and North Dakota does its part filling up that basket, with the state ranking at the top in the production of 11 food commodities ranging from pinto beans to spring wheat. But even in the land of plenty, many still struggle to keep food in their refrigerators and kitchen cupboards.
“Hunger hides in plain sight,” said Melissa Sobolik, president of Great Plains Food Bank, a not-for-profit organization that distributes millions of pounds of food each year to hunger-relief efforts in 99 communities across North Dakota and into eastern Minnesota. “No one wants to admit that they’re hungry or ask for help, but it’s out there.”
So is help. Several efforts in the Bismarck region look to take a big bite out of the problem of food insecurity.
“Food insecurity” is not having access to enough food to live an active, healthy life. Low income, debt, unemployment, disability, homelessness, food price increases, age and environment all can play a role. The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the problem.
More than 50 million people have experienced food insecurity during the pandemic, up from 35 million in 2019, according to the Feeding America nonprofit, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported in March that as many as 9 million children live in a household where they don’t eat enough because the parents can’t afford it. North Dakota isn’t immune -- an estimated 42,000 adults in the state, including 14,000 adults living with children, weren’t eating sufficiently late last year because they couldn’t afford it.
One in six people in the Great Plains Food Bank distribution area deals with hunger, compared to one in nine nationwide, according to Feeding America.
Fargo-based Great Plains -- North Dakota’s only food bank -- has served nearly 200 million meals in its four-decade existence. But officials in 2008 discovered gaps in efforts to reach more children, seniors and people living in rural areas known as food deserts. That led to the creation of seven direct service programs such as a mobile food pantry and a weekend food backpack program for students.
“We saw large gaps in service geography-wise and in children that are going underfed and seniors who are saving their gas money in order to drive long distances to the nearest food pantry instead of buying their medications,” Sobolik said. “We had heard a lot of stories from teachers and counselors that when kids were coming to school on Monday morning they hadn’t eaten since Friday lunch. We knew that there was something that had to be done.”
One of the goals of the $5.1 million Feed the Future fundraising campaign was to expand food distribution by opening a regional service center in Bismarck. The 10,000-square-foot warehouse opened late last year and is expected to distribute 1.5 million pounds of food in the coming year across central and western North Dakota.
The opening of the warehouse came as the food bank saw a 44% increase in meals served amid the pandemic. One of the benefits of the new facility is better serving of rural areas with the addition of the Mobile Food Pantry. In April food deliveries were made to Steele, Linton and Lincoln.
“Not only have we seen an increase in the food that we need to bring in, but our clientele jumped,” Sobolik said. “We are hearing stories and having people come to us for the very first time in their lives. They’ve been food bank donors in the past, they have done food drives and now they need a little bit of assistance to help them get back on their feet.”
The food bank last year witnessed an “unprecedented need for food assistance” -- a 39% increase in both pounds of food distributed and meals provided, and a 42% surge in the number of people receiving meals.
“We knew that it was a difficult year for so many,” Sobolik said. “But this really puts things in perspective.”
The onset of the pandemic in mid-March 2020 brought the economy to a near-standstill, with schools and businesses closed and people encouraged to stay at home. Surplus food quickly became scarce.
“Retailers obviously couldn’t keep food on their shelves so they didn’t have it to donate, and all of the companies that sell their products to grocery stores and retailers, they couldn’t keep it on their shelves,” Sobolik said. “So we just didn’t have the donations coming in that we historically had in the past.”
The food bank as a temporary remedy used money donations and grants to buy food products at market price. The cost is substantial, with three to five semitrailer loads of food purchased every month since March 2020 at a cost of $25,000 to $35,000 per truck load.
“We have this commitment and this burning desire to make sure that no one goes hungry,” Sobolik said. “It has meant a shift in operations and even a shift in priorities for our entire organization, but we just know that this is what we are here to do and we are proud that we can still help so many people who are struggling right now.”
Compassion also is a hallmark of Jim Barnhardt, co-owner of J & R Vacuum and Sewing in downtown Bismarck. In 2016, he and his wife, Cindy, attended a Pentecostal church convention in Hawaii with other members of the New Song Church from Bismarck.
“I woke up at 5 in the morning and I had meal ministry with services to help those in need just planted in my brain,” Barnhardt said. “It didn’t really seem like a dream. I didn’t know what it was. So I asked my wife Cindy and she said ‘you know what that is Jim, and you need to follow it.’”
On June 19, 2019, Barnhardt began Adopt-a-Block, a food distribution program in Bismarck. In the first week it served 45 families. In June 2020, the program was serving around 200 people a week after expanding to six locations in Bismarck-Mandan, Barnhardt said. By November that number was more than 2,700 people.
Now, the Barnhardts are adopting the model of the Los Angeles-based Dream Center network, which provides aid in the areas of hunger, domestic violence, human trafficking and addiction in 29 states and 11 countries.
The couple along with about 100 supporters and community leaders last month celebrated the groundbreaking of a two-story, 24,000-square-foot Dream Center facility in southeast Bismarck.
The $3.1 million Dream Center will house a chapel, meeting rooms, a community food pantry, a warehouse for Adopt-a-Block food, a multipurpose center, and a kitchen and dining room for The Banquet community meals. The Banquet is a non-denominational outreach ministry for people in need in Bismarck-Mandan that serves meals four days a week. Jim Barnhardt, who serves as the nonprofit’s board chairman, plans on expanding the meals to seven days.
“What we essentially put together was the idea of doing an Adopt-a-Block but taking the approach that the vision that I had was for food in general,” Barnhardt said.
But taking food donations to people and families in lower-income neighborhoods is still foremost in Barnhardt’s mind.
“If they know there is food in their cupboards, if we can get past those basic necessities, then they can think, ‘Well, I don’t have to struggle from week to week or day to day,’” he said.
Most of the food donations come from Great Plains Food Bank, and from surplus donations from Cash Wise Foods, Natural Grocers, Costco and Dan’s Supermarket.
While leaving the food distribution site at Jeannette Myhre Elementary School in January, roommates Katie Fulcher and Sabrina Kraus pull a pair of suitcases with boxes of food in each.
“We are very grateful,” Fulcher said. “It really helps when you are in between. This will fill our fridge.”
Each week as Barnhardt trucks food to the designated sites, he sees his vision coming together.
“I feel like I’m part of the solution,” he said. “God asked me to do this, and so I’m following the lead there and I’m following doors as they open. But I see so many opportunities to help people in need by forming the connections that are truly there.”
The community center in the small Standing Rock Indian Reservation community of Cannon Ball also is a connecting point.
On a cold, snowy December day, the Rev. Antone American Horse and several volunteers turned the large parking lot in front of the center into a staging point to distribute free boxes of food to an increasing number of people on and off the reservation reeling from the pandemic and food insecurity.
Throughout the course of the day, people arrived in pickup trucks with trailers, cars, SUVs or by foot to take boxes of fresh food.
The Trump administration initiated the Farmers to Families Food Box program in May 2020 in response to the pandemic. The Agriculture Department oversees the $6 billion effort that aims to aid both struggling farmers and hungry people. More than 240 organizations across the country have distributed about 166 million food boxes containing fresh produce, dairy products, meat and seafood.
The nonprofit relief agency Wings as Eagles Ministries, based out of the Dream Center in Porcupine, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, was responsible for distributing food boxes to several reservations in the Dakotas and Wyoming. American Horse, a long-time Cannon Ball resident, was contacted by the ministry to oversee the distribution of the food on Standing Rock.
“People are happy to have it,” he said. “I don’t put a limit on anybody. I tell people to take it and give it to someone who needs it.”
During a November food distribution, Sandi and Craig Imberi made the 70-mile trip from Mobridge, South Dakota, to Cannon Ball in their pickup pulling a utility trailer.
“This is amazing,” Sandi Imberi said as they loaded dozens of boxes onto the trailer to distribute. “The need in Mobridge is huge.”
Karen Heck, who volunteers to deliver food boxes to Fort Rice and Mandan, pulled her car alongside the pallet of boxes and asked if she could take 10.
“I think it’s been a blessing for so many people,” she said. “When I gave one fellow a box, he just hugged it.”
The problem of food insecurity -- which has existed around the world for centuries -- has no easy solution.
“If food alone was the answer, we would have solved it by now,” said Sobolik, with Great Plains Food bank. “Because there is enough food produced in the U.S. to feed every single person but not everyone has access to it. I think it’s a bigger, broader solution that involves the food system from start to finish. To making sure people have access and that they can afford the food.
“It might tie a little bit into poverty as well,” she said. “I don’t know that if we can solve one without solving the other.”
Barnhardt, with Adopt-A-Block, said the answer might lie with instilling better morals in children.
“If the kids have an opportunity to see what either is normal or at least what should be normal, we can affect the next generation,” he said.
Jena Gullo, executive director of the Missouri Slope Areawide United Way, said access to food is the easy part of the food insecurity answer.
“The second part is much more complex -- it’s targeting the root causes of generational poverty and breaking that cycle,” she said. “We as a community have to have better coordination of services and improved access so that people can get the right kind of help that they need at the right time. Then we can prevent a lot of bigger issues like hunger and homelessness from happening in the first place.”