Schools, nonprofits, churches and community organizations have rapidly mobilized to feed thousands of children and adults in western South Dakota who struggle to access adequate food, especially during coronavirus shutdowns.
In Rapid City alone, 16.3% of the community — nearly 11,700 people — live at or below poverty level, according to datausa. With more families losing income because of businesses closing, growing numbers of adults and children need meals in communities throughout western South Dakota.
Black Hills Area Community Foundation and United Way of the Black Hills announced Monday a joint effort to collect information about agencies’ food response efforts across the Black Hills while COVID-19 prevention measures are in effect. A master list of cities and towns organized by region lists times, days of the week and community sites where food will be provided.
The link to the complete list is at helplinecenter.org/when-disaster-strikes/. The list will be updated on Monday mornings. BHACF and UWBH staff plan to keep in regular contact with agency representatives to ensure the information remains as accurate as possible as the COVID-19 situation evolves.
The list includes locations where Feeding South Dakota is distributing emergency food boxes, drive-through style. Feeding South Dakota has closed its food pantries until it is safe to reopen, the organization announced, but it’s providing emergency boxes to ensure people still have access to food.
People are asked to remain in their vehicles; staff and volunteers will be loading the food, one box per household, maximum two boxes per vehicle. Distribution dates, times and locations will be evaluated after the first week to determine distribution plans for the following week. Follow facebook.com/FeedingSD/ for updates on current distribution schedules.
“This decision was most certainly not an easy decision to make but it has been determined to be in the best interest of everyone to ensure we are keeping our staff, volunteers and guests as safe as possible,” said Matt Gassen, CEO of Feeding South Dakota. “Closing the food pantries will allow us to more efficiently and effectively use our staff resources to continue to pack emergency boxes and bags of food to distribute to not only our residents in Rapid City and Sioux Falls, but to focus on the needs of all 66 counties of our state.”
School districts, meanwhile, are continually expanding their efforts to provide breakfasts and lunches to children. Rapid City Area Schools has launched a walk-up/drive-through free meals for kids program at five elementary schools. On Tuesday, the district announced schools will be closed through May 1. The district also announced the addition of a sixth meals site at Canyon Lake East on St. Cloud Street.
The RCAS free meals for kids is open to all children younger than 18, whether or not they are enrolled in an RCAS school. The meal sites are open on Mondays and Wednesdays and multiple meals are provided so children can have breakfast and lunch every day. Per federal guidelines, the children must be present when their families pick up the meals. Follow m.facebook.com/rapidcityschools for locations and information about the free meals program and other school updates.
Meade School District 46-1 also is providing free meals for kids. The school district is overseeing the effort that began last week with volunteers packing sack lunches and driving to homes and neighborhoods to deliver them, according to Ginger Johnson, who is a social worker for the district.
The school district took over making and delivering lunches this week, Johnson said. The district covers schools in Piedmont, Whitewood and Sturgis.
“This has to be a community effort to help all of our people that need … a boost,” Johnson said. “It certainly gives us something to do other than fretting over what’s happening. When you’re busy helping each other, it really makes a difference.”
Families have been calling to ask for lunches since word of the free meals began to spread, Johnson said. In addition to food, a program called Sam’s Closet is providing hygiene products and clothing for high school students, Johnson said.
Rhonda Ramsdell, the food service supervisor for Meade School District, said Monday that parents who want more information or who are unable to get to lunch pick-up sites and need meals delivered can call 605-347-3601. Leave a message that includes the caller’s name, phone number and address and number of children in the family.
Ramsdell said the district is planning to provide 500 lunches per day at Sturgis Elementary and Stagebarn Middle School, and the district’s bus company is taking lunches to Whitewood and other drop-off points. In Sturgis, school nurses and staff members are delivering meals.
Pick-up sites and more information is posted at facebook.com/MeadeSchoolDistrict.
The district is working on adding more lunch pick-up sites, and Ramsdell said the longer schools and businesses are closed, she anticipates families’ pantries will run low and the need for lunches will increase.
The district is receiving federal reimbursement for meals for students enrolled in its schools.
“But we’re feeding all children up to 18, so we are seeking funding for non-enrolled students. We have had people offer to donate and say ‘How can I help?’ I’m confident we’ll be able to feed non-enrolled students as well as little siblings and homeschooled kids (along with enrolled students),” Ramsdell said.
“We are reaching out to all the kids largely because we don’t want them to think we forgot them. They’re happy to see someone bring them a lunch. We really want to stress this is for all kids because we’re all going through a hardship right now,” she said.
Churches are pitching in with food for kids and adults. Holly Sortland, pastor of Open Heart United Methodist Church in Rapid City, is part of a COVID-19 response team. Open Heart partnered with Knollwood Heights United Methodist Church and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church and provided about 800 sack lunches last week.
The needs extend beyond children and teens. “We’ve had people call and ask if senior citizens can come get lunches and of course you can. The people coming were singles and some elderly. It was mind-boggling to me to see how many people there are that are hungry,” Sortland said.
She said Feeding South Dakota will be at Open Heart United Methodist from 2-4 p.m. April 1. Sortland said she also sees requests online and around the community for supplies such as diapers.
“We’re going to see how things go this week, and we’re keeping our food pantry stocked as well as possible, and (supplies) are going immediately,” Sortland said.
“My concern is I don’t think people realize how bad this is going to get. The more people that are losing their jobs — it’s going to be hard. We are looking at different possibilities of how we could put together other meals but do it in a way that’s safe and smart and keeping social distance,” she said.
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