PARKSTON, SD — Once a month, a truck pulls into the parking lot of Salem Lutheran Church in Parkston.
In his trailer: pallets of food that will be distributed to people living in 28 small communities in southeastern South Dakota, from Lake Andes to Pierre.
It’s a mobile food distribution site, a partnership between the statewide hunger relief organization Feeding South Dakota and dozens of small South Dakota communities to deliver a monthly collection of frozen, fresh and dry foods to people who need them.
Keith Sands has delivered for Feeding South Dakota for nine years, and this week he delivered pallets of boxes containing frozen ground beef, whole chicken, mini pizzas, Beyond Meat, mini waffles and various frozen fruits.
“Basically, it’s supposed to be enough to feed a family of four, with at least two meals a day planned,” Sands said.
In the past year, Feeding South Dakota has seen a 20 percent increase in the number of people coming to events.
On Friday morning in Parkston, before volunteers began handing out food, Sands counted about 70 vehicles in a line winding down the street behind the church parking lot. Usually a total of 75-80 vehicles cross the line per day.
“I think we’re going to break a record today,” Sands said.
The first car lines up more than an hour before the Feeding South Dakota truck arrives, Sands said. He has to be strict about how many cans of food he gives out at each stop, and if you’re near the end of the line, there’s a chance the volunteers will run out of food before the line is full.
Just as Sands finished loading the pallets into the truck to head to the next stop, a red van drove through the church parking lot. It was too late, Sands had to move on to the next town.
Betsy Marshall has volunteered with Feeding South Dakota since the food distribution site started in Parkston six years ago. She also volunteers at the Parkston Food Pantry, which is also located at Salem Lutheran.
Marshall said she saw the need for this type of outreach program before she came to her town, when she noticed that children participating in the local food backpack program wanted food to feed their entire families.
“I went to one of the board members one day and said, ‘We have to do something because there are kids that are getting this that obviously their families have to come to the food bank,'” Marshall said.
Marshall said he remembers when the Feeding South Dakota truck started arriving twice a month during the COVID-19 pandemic to accommodate an influx of people who needed help finding food after being laid off or losing their jobs you are
That didn’t happen. Instead, the need has been reduced during the pandemic.
But now that trend is reversing.
Sands said he didn’t want to be completely exhausted before reaching his final stop, and he had two more stops that day: Tripp at 10:30 a.m. and Freeman at 12:30 p.m.
Stacey Andernacht, director of communications for Feeding South Dakota, said keeping enough food in the truck is a balancing act, but putting food in the cars and ensuring enough nutritional balance are two separate battles.
“We put food in people’s vehicles and make pounds, but they don’t have a choice about what they get,” Andernacht said.
The biggest challenge for Feeding South Dakota’s team of staff and volunteers is finding a way to get fresh, non-dry goods into the hands of the people who need them.
At Parkston Sands, volunteers also handed out bags of apples and peaches from Washington state orchards in addition to frozen and dry goods. These fruits were provided through the Emergency Food Assistance Program, a federal program that purchases produce from farms across the country and distributes these items to programs such as Feeding South Dakota.
These TEFAP goods are at risk of disappearing. The current proposed farm bill would cut funding for TEFAP commodities, and Andernacht said that would leave Feeding South Dakota with a tough choice: start buying more fresh fruits and vegetables themselves or stop distributing them altogether.
“These commodities have declined in fiscal 2023,” Andernacht said. “Compared to 2022, they are down 20%.”
“Now we are struggling because our supplies are running low at the same time as our donated food, so now we have to buy more at a higher price.”
Feeding South Dakota is part of the Feeding America network, which means they theoretically have access to food items donated from across the country. But because South Dakota is less populated and further away from major distribution centers, it becomes a challenge to compete with other distribution sites that are more guaranteed to be able to use this food at a lower shipping cost.
“When we acquire the items, all we have to do is pay for the shipping, and Feeding America has contracted with the shipping companies that we have to use,” Andernacht said. “But that’s where it gets tough because not a lot of people want to come to South Dakota, so it can get expensive.”
At the next stop, outside the baseball field off Main Street in Tripp, Sands and three new volunteers set to work packing boxes into suitcases.
Marlene Buchholz and her husband Loren live in Tripp. They waited near the end of the line, with a “1” written in the corner of their windshield, signifying food for a family.
“Some things aren’t too bad, but some of your extras start to get pretty expensive,” Loren Buchholz said.
The fresh fruits and vegetables they get save them a lot of money, Marlene said. Other items like spices or vinegar have seen prices go up at the grocery store, and she said having a mobile food site helps offset the cost of those items.
Loren and Marlene Buckholz are both retired and on disability and said getting a box each month is a help they can count on when grocery store prices become so unpredictable.