June 25, 2008

Study Recommends Enhancements to Food Network


One in 12 North Dakotans needs help from the state's network of charitable food providers - 26,000 people a month, 40 percent of which are children, said Marcia Paulson, project coordinator for a new study called Creating a Hunger Free North Dakota.

Rising costs for food, fuel and prescription medications, along with low-paying jobs, are impacting the two fastest-growing groups who need food assistance, senior citizens and the working poor, she said.

As a changing economic landscape emerges, the charitable food network must change and adapt as well, she said.

North Dakota has about 130 nonprofit soup kitchens, shelter feeding programs and food pantries, according to the study. These organizations are supplied in part with food from the Great Plains Food Bank in Fargo, from donated surplus food, and Community Action Programs, which receive USDA commodities.

To find new and better ways to offer hunger relief, it was imperative to get a detailed picture of the needs of the donor organizations as well as the clients, Paulson said.

The study, "Creating a Hunger Free North Dakota," funded in major part by the Bremer Foundation, gathered information from focus groups, postcard surveys and questionnaires along with local, state and federal statistics. Paulson, along with Steve Sellant, director of the Great Plains Food Bank, a program of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, and Arlene Dura, Food Assistance Program director with the North Dakota Department of Human Services, presented findings Tuesday at the Ruth Meiers Hospitality House's Stone Soup Kitchen in Bismarck.

Among the major findings revealed:

* Significant portions of the state are underserved by food networks.

* Clients report facing barriers such as embarrassment, transportation costs and insufficient food available.

* Providers are strained by increasing demand and challenged by decreasing resources.

* Providers must adapt and expand to meet growing needs for food.

* Foods are in transition. Supplies of packaged, nonperishable foods are down; perishable goods now make up a greater portion of donations.

* Opportunities exist for collaboration between federal feeding programs and charitable feeding groups.

Recommendations suggested by the research information include eliminating gaps in services, building capacity and fortifying the emergency food system.

Sellant said that new initiatives will have the advantage of a strong starting point with the state network already in place. The initiatives will include working in underserved counties by adopting new delivery systems that will take some of the travel burden from clients.

These include a mobile food pantry, which was scheduled to make its first run Tuesday to Garrison, and prepacked food baskets, which can be delivered to churches and small communities for distribution. An expanded rural delivery program was to make its first run Tuesday to stock a reopened pantry in New Leipzig and one in Carson.

With a decline seen in donations of nonperishable packaged foods, perishable foods from retailers through a retail pickup program will make up a bigger portion of donations, he said. In Bismarck, Ruth Meiers already benefits from such donations through Sam's Club, he said.

Selland also expects to see an additional half-million pounds of food next year through the next farm bill, he said.

Local pantries, he said, are the backbone of North Dakota's charitable food network, of which many are served by aging volunteers; Great Plains hopes to see training and funding to continue staffing those centers, he said.

He also would like to see increased participation by people in receiving both food stamps and charitable feeding donations; the correlation is lower than most people think, he said.

Dura said that 49,000 North Dakotans a month participate in the food stamp program.

The most positive change in the program in the past few years has been the replacement of paper with debit cards, to ease people's embarrassment at the checkout, she said. Client paperwork also has been reduced, she said, from reporting their eligibility monthly to just twice a year, and the removal of assets such as savings accounts and cars from consideration of income.

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