FARGO - During a holiday weekend known for excessive eating, you might find it hard to imagine that hunger is an issue in our community. However, food bank and pantry leaders say this couldn't be farther from the truth.

"Often people think 'It isn't someone on my block who is using the food pantry,' " says Stacie Loegering, executive director at Emergency Food Pantry. "I'm amazed to find out how many people have used a food pantry and are open to talk about it, whether it was while they were young or during their first job."

Great Plains Food Bank Volunteer Coordinator Zanik Bartel affirms this fact.

"In the state of North Dakota, 1 in 9 individuals have used food assistance," he says.

Loegering says that the majority of people who come to Emergency Food Pantry are employed, working one to two jobs.

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"Even in circumstances where people are working, they often can have such a low income that it's impossible to get basic food, clothes and safe shelter so they really have to make decisions on other things," Loegering says. "For senior citizens, they sometimes think about paying their rent, buying their medicines or getting food."

Food bank vs. food pantry

Although people often use "food bank" and "food pantry" interchangeably, Loegering says these operations are different.

"The best way to think about - especially in our region - is that a food bank is more like a warehouse while a food pantry is more of a grocery store," Loegering says. "The majority of work at a food bank is receiving, supplying and redistributing. "

Loegering explains that food pantries and food shelves usually provide food directly to the people.

"Locally, the Great Plains Food Bank does have a few programs that they do give food directly to people," Loegering says.

The Backpack Program, which sends food home with children who qualify in North Dakota for the federal free and reduced lunch program, is an example. The Great Plains Food Bank's Senior Food Pack Program (CSFP) provides shelf-stable food packages on a monthly basis to low-income seniors, 60 years and older. The Great Plains Food Bank also operates the Mobile Food Pantry which travels the state to distribute fresh vegetables, meat, bakery items and boxed goods to people in need.

"The Emergency Food Pantry receives 30 percent of their inventory from Great Plains Food Bank," she says. "Overall, it's good to think of the Food Bank more as recovering the food and distributing out to local food pantries."

Bartel and Loegering both say that food banks and pantries rely on community partnerships from businesses, community members and churches. Since the Great Plains Food Bank program began in 1983 as a part of Lutheran Social Services, it has distributed more than 159 million pounds of food.

Last year, the Emergency Food Pantry reported that more than 60,000 individuals visited the north Fargo facility to receive assistance.

Finding food assistance

Although any food bank or food pantry should be able to help a person access food, each program may have different guidelines or approval processes.

Often a person would have to show a state-issued ID and provide income, current address as well as name and birthdate of each person in the household.

At the Emergency Food Pantry, Loegering says it takes about an hour for a person to be approved and "shop" for their food.

"They fill out what we call is our menu. Think of it as a grocery list so they can select what they want from the goods we have," she says. "Then they also get to shop in person - the meats, eggs, milk and fruits and vegetables. "

Certain food pantries in town, like the Legacy Children's Foundation in the Madison neighborhood of north Fargo, focus on serving needs right in their neighborhood. The school's "K.I.D.S" (Karing is Doing Service) program is Fargo's first student-run food pantry that provides protein-rich foods, drinks and personal hygiene items on Thursdays from 5 to 7 p.m. More than 1,500 pounds of groceries have been distributed to 150 children, 121 adults and 5 seniors since the food pantry opened its doors in early November.

The YWCA Food Pantry supplies food boxes as part of its initiative to fight homelessness and empower women. More than 6,000 individuals have received food boxes from the pantry, which is open Monday through Friday from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.

Loegering says throughout the year - and especially during the holiday season - faith-based food drives and pantries offer additional help to those in need. See an extensive list of food pantries with specific contact information online.

4 ways to fight hunger

Both Bartel and Loegering say that contributing to a food bank or pantry is more important today than ever. Consider these four ways to help area organizations and those in need.

1. Collect, donate or distribute food.

Food banks and pantries will always try to find a way to use a food donation, either accepting it or directing the person to another location where the specific item can be used.

"The Emergency Food Pantry accepts non-perishable, packaged and unopened items," Loegering says. "Some meal programs can accept unique items, like cooked food, but it's best to just call and ask."

2. Contact food pantries or shelters for immediate needs.

Food pantries will often run low on a specific item like protein or fresh vegetablesbecause they cannot depend on or purchase a regular supply. Call or check a food pantry's website and social media feed to learn about urgent needs.

3. Consider donating money or time to hunger initiatives.

Food banks or pantries will require volunteers to help distribute or prepare food. Monetary donations are always appreciated to help pay for commodities or staff.

"We tend to have to purchase a lot of those protein foods. We just don't get enough of those donated," Loegering says. "So it's nice to have those financial contributions."

4. Plan to plant a free garden.

The Little Free Garden project is a community movement encouraging citizens to grow food that is free for others to harvest. Started by the group Ugly Food of the North in 2015, the Little Free Garden project provides a small 2- by 4-foot "structure to be place in a publically accessible space, most often placed in a person's front lawn," according to Littlefreegarden.com

Fargo Stuff, an e-commerce company in downtown Fargo is now offering a registration kit that includes weather-resistant placard, booklet with garden tips and a how-to-build guide at Fargostuff.com/littlefreegarden.