COVID-19 stretching needs for food assistance in South Dakota

Since March, COVID-19 has been wreaking havoc across the country — and South Dakota is not immune to its effects. This “new normal” has necessitated some changes in operations for the nonprofit Feeding South Dakota, as the organization is now seeing two to three times the number of families in need of food assistance. 

“Especially like here in the Pierre/Fort Pierre area here, we do our mobile distribution once a month from here, and we went from an average of about 175 households or individuals coming through that were in need of food. We’re now seeing close to 350 households come through just in that distribution alone that we do each month,” Central Operations Manager of Feeding South Dakota Pierre Andrew Walz told the Capital Journal on Thursday. 

The mobile distribution has been modified to operate as a drive-through since the onset of the pandemic in order to minimize contact among staff volunteers, volunteers, and individuals in need. State officials have also granted waivers for some of the income requirements to receive commodity products through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ordinarily, individuals in need were required to sign paperwork, but now only a verbal confirmation is necessary to receive assistance — a volunteer physically fills out the form.

The monthly mobile distribution occurs on the second Wednesday of each month at River City Transit, 1600 E. Dakota Ave. The next distribution will be Oct. 14.

The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program was created by the federal government through the $2.2 trillion CARES Act to address food insecurity concerns. Since the program’s April inception, the USDA has partnered with struggling regional and local distributors to purchase $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy, and meat. Distributors and wholesalers can then provide a pre-approved box of fresh produce, dairy, and meat products to food banks, community and faith based organizations, and other non-profits across the country, according to a USDA news release.

Currently, Feeding South Dakota is entering phase three of that program, which will run through October unless Congress extends COVID-19 federal relief funds.

“That’s been a real help to fill that need that’s been there with the changes in the distribution network that we’ve seen, to kind of help us maintain our distributions and get to those extra people,” Walz said. 

The increased need necessitates more distributions and more locations, which requires enough staff and trucks to manage it all.

“Being in central South Dakota, we’re kind of unique here where we serve a lot of rural communities. We currently do mobile food distributions in 41 communities throughout the central part of South Dakota, and that’s just out of this location here. So having the capacity to reach those locations, we’ve got two trucks that are pretty much on the road daily to do distribution in those towns,” Walz said.

“Quite a bit” of food is needed to support the increase, Walz said. COVID-19’s negative impact on the service industry and the food supply chain has created a ripple effect, which has made it more difficult for food assistance programs to source food.

However, Feeding South Dakota gets products from a variety of sources, such as Feeding America, of which it is a member. The USDA has several programs that Feeding South Dakota can draw supplies from as well, while donations from other individuals and organizations fill in the gaps left by the donor network. A United Way grant provides funds to operate the mobile distribution on a monthly basis.

“As an organization, we do everything we can to make sure that we do have the food or whatever means we can to give it to the people that need it. So we’ll continue to do that no matter what we have to do to work through that,” Walz said.

Most of the food the nonprofit distributes consists of staple items, such as dry shelf essentials (think canned soup and pasta), fresh meats and produce. The Foods to Encourage Program helps individuals in need get access to healthy, balanced products like fresh fruits and vegetables, proteins such as meat, beans, and peanut butter. Sixty-five to 75% of distributed products are considered “foods to encourage.” Feeding South Dakota tries to mix in a variety of foods in each package, but the contents depend on what it has in stock. Regardless, every person gets the same box.

Other valuable resources are volunteers, since Feeding South Dakota needs groups and local businesses to pack the boxes of food to be distributed. Due to COVID-19, only groups of 10 or fewer can volunteer at a time, but there has been an influx of participating groups.

“Since COVID, having consistently packed boxes [has] really become a huge part of our operation, is having the volunteer groups in here on a weekly basis. So we have a lot of regulars that are here every week; one, two, three times a week,” Walz said.

The packing setup has been spread out to maintain social distancing guidelines, and volunteers are strongly encouraged to wear masks. Feeding South Dakota has masks on-hand for those who don’t have one.

The existing food assistance programs, such as the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP, also known as the Senior Box Program) are still in operation. A statewide program, the Pierre location packs and distributes those boxes to just under 1,200 low-income senior citizens in central South Dakota.

Another existing program that continues through the COVID-19 pandemic is The Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP, that provides food to low-income individuals. Since the onset of the pandemic, TEFAP boxes have been distributed via a mobile food pantry to those that meet certain income requirements. Individuals can self-declare that they need assistance, but if they don’t meet the state standards and still need food, as long as they present a photo ID. Feeding South Dakota provides them with food not in the commodity boxes, no questions asked.

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