3 million pound food shortage hits Great Plains Food Bank as demand rises

People in need of food in North Dakota and Clay County, Minnesota, increased 14% in 2022, and donations were down 25% for Great Plains Food Bank.

A man dressed all in black operates a forklift.
Ryan Fischer, distribution center manager at the Great Plains Food Bank, offloads crates of shelf-stable milk on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

FARGO — Supply is not meeting demand at Great Plains Food Bank, which saw the need for food increase last year while available supplies dramatically decreased.

The number of people needing food in 2022 across North Dakota and Clay County, Minnesota, increased by 14%, but the total amount of food donations received dropped by 25%, said Melissa Sobolik, chief executive officer of the Great Plains Food Bank, 1720 3rd Ave N.

“Reviewing our statistics from last year confirmed two things to be true that we were expecting: the need remains high while food donations remain low,” Sobolik said, adding the food distributed also dropped from 15.2 million pounds in 2021 to 11.9 million pounds in 2022.

Great Plains Food Bank provided food assistance to 138,439 people last year, which was the second-highest total in the organization's 40-year history.

The highest year on record was around 150,000 people helped in 2020, the year the coronavirus pandemic began.


Shelves inside the Great Plains Food Bank are mainly stocked with canned and bottled goods Friday, Feb. 3, 2023.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

The lack of food donations was projected to drop last summer to a 1 million pound shortfall, but the organization saw a 3 million pound shortage in donations, the lowest level since 2012, Sobolik said.

To offset the loss, the food bank purchased more than 1.9 million pounds of food, which was a 25% increase in purchases from the year before, she said.

“It means that people have not recovered from the economic impacts of the pandemic, and we are facing inflation," she said. "Many are facing deeper poverty than they have before. Dollars are not stretching, and people are making tough sacrifices between food, rent, education and heat."

In addition to the food donation shortage, ordering supplies has become a tedious task. It sometimes takes months for products to arrive at the food bank. Additionally, shipping costs have increased, which is impacting their budget more than expected.

“It’s so expensive. We don’t know how long of a lead time it is to truck it in. Before, we would get eggs within a week. Nows we're working with farmers and ranchers to get beef, and there is a six-month wait to get beef processed. We have to plan so far ahead,” Sobolik said.

A woman with a short, dark bob smiles at her desk.
Melissa Sobolik, chief executive officer of the Great Plains Food Bank, in her office on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

A look around the organization’s warehouse shows that most of the products are canned goods and other shelf-stable foods.

“We don’t have any eggs right now, and all of this doesn’t help health. When we do get fresh produce, we get it out as soon as we can. But if we have a blizzard and we can’t get out to rural North Dakota, then it can go bad,” Sobolik said.

Rural communities are getting hit harder than the more urban places like Fargo and Bismarck, she said.


“The problem areas are all across the state. In Cass County, for example, the number of people needing food has declined, but overall numbers are up," Sobolik said. "Rural communities are getting hit really hard, and that’s where they don’t have access to a grocery store. It’s a vicious cycle."

Long-term solutions include additional efforts to connect resources to communities, such as food stamp programs and free school meals.

Great Plains Food Bank hired a second food resource manager whose sole focus is to secure donations directly from farmers and retailers.

They are "pounding on doors looking for donations anywhere we can get them,” Sobolik said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that while the cost of living decreased 0.5% in December, energy costs are up 5.2% and food prices are 11.4% higher compared to a year ago.

A man operates a forklift in a nearly empty trailer.
JJ Walsh, shipping and receiving supervisor at Great Plains Food Bank, takes shelf-stable milk off of a truck Friday, Feb. 3, 2023 at the Great Plains Food Bank.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

The Great Plains Food Bank is also supporting legislation that would offer free meals in public schools and create a state food insecurity task force, which would pair state department heads with nonprofits to build a plan to reduce food insecurity rates.

And while the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee reported the unemployment rate in North Dakota at 2.3%, the minimum wage remains at $7.25 an hour, which is lower than any bordering state.

Minnesota’s minimum wage is $10.59, South Dakota’s wage is $10.80 and Montana’s minimum wage is $9.95.


On Friday, Feb. 3, the North Dakota House of Representatives killed a bill sponsored by Rep. LaurieBeth Hager, D-Fargo, that would have raised the state’s minimum wage to $9.25.

In Hager’s floor speech, she said people are waiting in food lines for an hour, which is the amount of time needed at work to buy two gallons of gas on minimum wage.

“You probably don’t see these people unless you drive past the food pantries, and see them waiting in line and wondering why they don’t have enough money. There are people in our state earning $7.25 an hour. We need to take care of those people,” Hager said in a press release.

Currently, one in six people in North Dakota, and one in four children, are being impacted by hunger, Sobolik said.

“We have to bounce back in some way; the economy cannot sustain itself the way it is,” she said.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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