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Great Plains Food Bank CEO addresses rural hunger before House panel

Sobolik also shares for the first time her needs at one time for food assistance.

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Melissa Sobolik, chief executive officer of the Great Plains Food Bank, speaks at a news conference for the annual Fill the Dome food drive on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, at the Fargodome. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
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FARGO — Great Plains Food Bank CEO Melissa Sobolik took to the national stage to talk about hunger challenges facing rural areas on Wednesday, Dec. 8.

She was one of several speakers from across the nation to talk to a U.S. House of Representatives committee holding a series of hearings to gather information on needs and is calling for a White House conference to address the issues.

In the Zoom meeting, chaired by U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Massachusetts, Sobolik for the first time detailed a few programs she used in her younger years when she couldn't afford food, and also offered ideas on how to combat rural hunger.

Sobolik said her farm family used the reduced price school lunch program when she was in school in the small town of Courtenay, N.D., and later when living independently and attending Concordia College despite having two jobs she said she couldn't afford groceries.

So for a short time, she was on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that provides food aid to low-income residents.

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"It was a matter of survival," she said.

Sobolik said in rural areas many people, including farmers, are sometimes too proud to ask for help.

"And I think that is part of the reason that hunger hides in plain sight in rural communities," she told the committee. "We are proud. We don't let it define us or beat us. We grow food to feed the world so how can we be hungry at the same time?"

Being the only food bank in North Dakota, Great Plains statistics show that one in six state residents need food assistance with many in rural communities.

The need has gotten worse during the pandemic, she told the panel, with the number of people being served growing 50% from 102,000 to 153,000. with many of those being children and senior citizens.

Sobolik said in an interview Thursday that the number did dip a little in late summer and early fall this year, but with the colder months and people having to pay higher heating bills the number is back up to about the same as during the earlier pandemic months.

She said "it's a very busy time" but that the community is also stepping up to help.

Besides talking about the increase in numbers, Sobolik also offered some ways the food bank has been creative in rural towns to provide food.

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They have offered drive-through food pantries and also placed them in clinics and schools to be more accessible.

In addition, she said they have mailed meals to veterans and also worked with tribes to offer more culturally appropriate food items.

Sobolik said many of the federal food programs are designed for bigger cities with "mass quantities" at one major site, but that doesn't work for less dense populations.

"The answer is not a one size fits all," she said about the rural needs.

She added that it takes not only government, but private partners and the community to address hunger issues.

The CEO also thinks it's important for people to share their stories.

So does McGovern, a longtime advocate in fighting food insecurity, who hopes the White House conference to join forces with the United Nations to look at paths to end hunger by 2030 will occur.

Sobolik said she was chosen to speak by the nation's food bank network called Feeding America, of which Great Plains is a member. The North Dakota food bank also serves Clay County in Minnesota and has operations in more than 100 communities.

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