FARGO — Come the end of June, Steve Sellent was hoping to slide out the door on his last day as CEO of the Great Plains Food Bank with little or no fanfare.

But given his more than three decades of leading North Dakota’s only food bank, that’s not going to happen.

“After 31 years, you do have time to reflect a little bit and celebrate a little bit,” he said.

On Monday, June 14, the nonprofit officially announced the departure of Sellent and the appointment of its president and former Fargo city commissioner, Melissa Sobolik, as CEO.

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Sellent, 65, is retiring from a career during which the food bank grew from serving only the Red River Valley to distributing food to nearly 200 food pantries, shelters and soup kitchens in more than 100 communities across the state and in neighboring Clay County, Minn.

“We were really a fledgling organization back then and we've grown into one of North Dakota’s largest nonprofits,” he said.

But the time is right for transition as the food bank embarks on a new strategic plan beginning July 1, which is Sobolik’s first day as CEO.

While much of the effort thus far has been spent on recovery and distribution of food, much more focus in the future will be on addressing the root causes of hunger.

Sobolik, 41, said it’s a “natural progression” for the nonprofit.

“There’s going to be a lot of new and exciting initiatives that may lead us beyond food, which might be a stretch for us in our traditional role," she said. "But it's going to be really exciting at the same time.”

Growth, in more ways than one

Sellent said his call to service began about 50 years ago when he was involved in a Christian teen organization.

He took on leadership roles in church, community organizations and government in his hometown of Sabin, Minn.

His degree in Business Administration from Minnesota State University Moorhead and early experience with warehousing and transportation would later make him a natural fit for the Great Plains Food Bank, where he was hired as director in 1990.

Steve Sellent is retiring after 31 years at the helm of The Great Plains Food Bank. His last day is June 30. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Steve Sellent is retiring after 31 years at the helm of The Great Plains Food Bank. His last day is June 30. Chris Flynn / The Forum

In the early days, the food bank was in a small, leased warehouse space in the old Union Storage facility along Main Avenue in Fargo.

It had four people on staff.

In 2000, the food bank moved to its current, much larger location at 1720 Third Ave. N. in Fargo.

Today, it employs nearly 40 people and has some 5,000 volunteers.

Last year, the food bank opened a Bismarck facility to better serve the western half of the state.

The food bank’s bottom line has grown from $200,000 annually to a cash operating budget of $6.5 million and a total budget of almost $35 million today, Sellent said.

When he started, the food bank provided fewer than one million meals per year in the state; last year, the number was more than 21 million, he said.

Innovation drives evolution

Sellent said his philosophy has driven innovation to keep the work of the Great Plains Food Bank evolving.

“It's just so imperative and so incumbent on us to really be finding new ways each and every day, big or small, to better meet the needs of our hungry neighbors,” he said.

Sellent said he’s most proud of the food bank’s expanded programs, including those to address gaps in service for children, seniors and rural communities, and in its ability to be a pioneer in the recovery of perishable foods.

Great Plains Food Bank was one of the first in the nation to launch a full-scale food recovery program through local grocery stores and received a national innovation award for that work.

He’s also proud of Ending Hunger 2.0, the project overseen by Sobolik that focuses on long-term solutions and prevention work.

He highlighted the nonprofit’s ability to respond quickly to natural disasters, including major floods and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.

From March 2020 to April 2021, distribution of food to families in need increased by 47%.

What’s most important to him, however, might be the sheer number of meals provided during his tenure that meant children didn’t go to bed hungry and seniors didn’t have to choose between food and medicine.

“The difference those 195 million meals made in people's lives is really, to me, the most meaningful achievement,” he said.

Keeping him on 'speed dial'

Sobolik’s first day on the job at the Great Plains Food Bank was around Thanksgiving 2007.

Sellent asked her to check out a previously unknown donation event at the Fargodome that was in its first year — Fill the Dome.

“I remember calling him and not knowing him very well, saying, ‘This is way bigger than a little food drive,’” she said, referring to what’s become a massive, annual event.

Sobolik worked her way up the ranks through the years, and in 2019, was named president of the nonprofit.

Sellent said though a search firm was hired to find his replacement, the nonprofit's board of directors decided Sobolik was the best fit.

“I just have no doubts that our best days are still ahead,” he said.

Sellent said he plans to find some way to continue serving the community, likely in a volunteer role.

He also has plans to find time to fish, hike, bike and travel with his wife.

But he might not be able to make the break completely, at first.

Sobolik said she’s nervous and excited about leading the large, complex organization and wants to lean on Sellent when needed.

“He's going to be on speed dial,” she said, with a laugh.