Jennifer Stensaas has seen the need for emergency food packages soar during the pandemic, including Yankton.
“We’ve nearly tripled our output of what we were doing before COVID-19,” the Feeding South Dakota spokeswoman said.
The organization had already developed a network across South Dakota, but the demand grew overnight in a number of new sites.
“We did have an established mobile food pantry program that made distributions in 45 different communities,” she said. “Since COVID-19, we are close to 80 different communities, whether it’s taking the food truck there or bringing emergency boxes of food for local distribution.”
The United Way & Volunteer Services of Greater Yankton has partnered with Feeding South Dakota on the local effort. The next distribution will be held from 4-6 p.m. today (Wednesday) at the Yankton High School parking lot at 1801 Summit Avenue.
Other regional distribution sites are listed at the end of this story.
Typically, each family receives approximately 30-70 pounds of fresh and frozen produce, dairy, meat, breads and other non-perishable food items. The type of food distributed varies, depending on what is available at the current time.
The food is pre-packaged into boxes and bags for distribution drive-through style. People are asked to remain in their vehicles; staff and volunteers load the food, one box per household, maximum two boxes per vehicle.
The food distributions generally last one to two hours, depending on the site, Stensaas said.
“We don’t impose any residency requirements that you must live in the county of the distribution, but we have heard of some community officials who are imposing those restrictions. You do need to be a South Dakota resident to take part in the Feeding South Dakota food distribution,” she said.
“We don’t have income guidelines for the general distribution of emergency boxes. We do have a separate distribution of USDA commodities, and you need to fall within income guidelines to qualify for those items.”
The emergency boxes are meant to supplement, not replace, other forms of food assistance, Stensaas said.
In addition to the emergency boxes, Feeding South Dakota also offers Corona Help South Dakota, which assists individuals who cannot leave their homes because of quarantine, lack of reliable transportation or other reasons.
After careful consideration, Feeding South Dakota’s food pantries in Rapid City and Sioux Falls are now closed until it is safe to reopen.
“This decision was most certainly not an easy decision to make, but it has been determined to be in the best interest of everyone to ensure we are keeping our staff, volunteers and guests as safe as possible,” said Matt Gassen, Feeding South Dakota’s CEO.
“Closing the food pantries will allow us to more efficiently and effectively use our staff resources to continue to pack emergency boxes and bags of food to distribute to not only our residents in Rapid City and Sioux Falls, but (also) to focus on the needs of all 66 counties of our state.”
Food insecurity — not having a consistently reliable source of food — isn’t a new issue for the state and has long preceded the current pandemic, Stensaas said. In particular, South Dakota has had three or four of the nation’s 10 poorest counties, she said.
Every day, 106,646 people in South Dakota — about one-eighth of the state’s population — are at risk of going hungry, according to the Feeding South Dakota website. Of those individuals who use the food pantry program, nearly 50 percent are under the age of 18.
Feeding South Dakota is the state’s largest charitable hunger relief organization. In FY19, Feeding South Dakota secured and distributed nearly 15.4 million pounds of quality nutritious donated and purchased food providing 12.8 million meals to nearly 100,000 individuals who are food insecure.
When it came to the COVID-19 demand, Feeding South Dakota received a bit of a trial run last year, Stensaas said.
“We got a good taste of this last winter and early spring during the government shutdown,” she said. “We had pretty serious conversations on what happens if we couldn’t meet the demand. We look at a lot of different scenarios.”
But the pandemic brought even more challenges when it came to food distribution, Stensaas said. Besides the skyrocketing demand for food, state and local organizers needed to figure ways of meeting health guidelines on no-contact and social distancing.
“COVID-19 hit fast. We didn’t have a lot of time, and we had to think outside the box,” she said. “One of our early concerns was the new model of serving people as efficiently and safely as we can, and that’s where we’re at today.”
The lower gas prices have reduced transportation costs for deliveries, freeing up money for spending on food, Stensaas said. But at the same time, Feeding South Dakota finds itself in need of more food and financial donations along with more volunteers. In some cases, people who formerly contributed to the food banks and pantries are now using the resources themselves.
“We are encouraging people to call the Helpline at 211 for a list of community resources,” Stensaas said.
In many cases, those individuals are turning for help because of a lost job, closed business or other sudden financial hardship, she said. In addition, children may have lost their regular source of meals when schools closed for the remainder of the year.
“We’ve had people come through and say it was the first time they had ever done something like this (mobile food pantry),” she said. “We have some who use us only once or twice to get through their needs. Many people are just one medical bill or other emergency away from needing assistance.”
Other regional distributions are set for the following times and locations, according to the Feeding South Dakota website:
• Hutchinson County will have distributions Friday (May 15) at the Old Fire Hall in Parkston at 9 a.m., at the baseball field in Tripp at 10:30 a.m. and at Bethany Mennonite Church in Freeman at 12:30 p.m.
• Bon Homme County will have distributions May 21 at the Springfield Fire Hall at 10:30 a.m.; and May 22 at the Scotland Community Church (formerly UCC) from 8:45-9:45 a.m., at the Tyndall Fire Station from 10:30-11:30 a.m. and the Avon Fire Station at noon.
• Douglas County will have a distribution at Zion Lutheran Church in Delmont at 10:45 a.m. June 5.
• Charles Mix, Clay, Turner and Union counties don’t have another distribution listed at this time on the Feeding South Dakota website. The next dates for those counties are not known at this time.
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