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Published February 28, 2013, 11:01 AM

Feeding South Dakota wiping out hunger

One in eight in South Dakota is ‘food insecure.'

HURON, S.D. — Matt Gassen says one doesn’t have to look to the developing countries of the world to see the face of hunger.

“I always say if you want to know what the face of hunger looks like, all you have to do is look in the mirror,” says the executive director of Feeding South Dakota.

“Why? Because hunger looks like us,” he says. “It’s really no different.”

Gassen, whose first career was a military one in the Air Force, directs a nonprofit organization that partners with hundreds of others across South Dakota with a common goal of eliminating hunger.

Essential programs range from food pantries and food banks to back packs of food for school kids and a recently launched mobile pantry.

Tens of thousands of people eat nourishing meals they would not otherwise get because of dedicated volunteers and the generosity of donors.

“It’s a monumental task, but it’s one that we’re going to continue to fight,” Gassen says.

In Huron, for example, 350 to 400 at-risk kids go home on Fridays with back packs of nutritious, easy-to-prepare food for the weekend. On school days, they eat free or reduced meals at noon.

South Dakota feeds the world with the agricultural commodities it produces, but too many who live in the state must choose between regular meals and paying household bills.

One in eight is “food insecure,” and of that one in five is a child, Gassen says. Forty percent of children in public schools qualify for free or reduced lunch programs.

Also, 19 percent of South Dakotans over 50 are at or below the poverty level.

A family of four that is at or below the poverty level struggles to live on an income of $1,620 a month. That has to cover the rent, utilities, gas, insurance, food and other expenses.

“If you start putting those numbers to paper, you really realize pretty quickly how impossible it is for a family to survive on that kind of money,” Gassen says.

When faced with that challenge, the budget must be cut and the easiest and first place to do so is with food.

“We can get by with one less meal,” he says poor people are forced to decide. “We won’t buy this, we’ll buy the cheaper version of that.”

Gassen says he was humbled last October when the family of the late Sen. George McGovern designated memorials to Feeding South Dakota. McGovern spent decades fighting hunger around the world, and in 1961 he was named the first director of the Food for Peace program.

Feeding children

Feeding South Dakota has food pantries in Sioux Falls and Rapid City. Its BackPack program feeds 5,000 children in those two cities plus several surrounding communities. Huron and other cities in the state have started their own programs.

“We know if they can’t concentrate they can’t learn,” Gassen says. “We think this program is going to help these children.”

The nonprofit agency also has a commodities program that distributes food to organizations around the state, as well as a supplemental food box program for seniors.

Not only does the nutritious food help them maintain their health, it also allows them to continue to live independently. Across South Dakota, 20,000 seniors are benefiting.

Its food bank program distributes donated food products to nonprofit partner organizations, touching the lives of 100,000 people.

Now just six weeks old is the mobile food pantry, which makes use of a specialized truck to distribute food directly to people in their communities. It’s been a valuable tool to fight hunger, especially in South Dakota’s most remote, rural communities where people have no access to grocery stores.

Ninety-eight percent of Feeding South Dakota’s budget covers the cost of the programs, while 1 percent is for fund raising and 1 percent is for administration.

“We work very, very hard to try to be the best stewards of donated dollars that we can be, to the best of our ability,” Gassen says.

What is the face of hunger in Huron?

It could be the child in the neighborhood playground, the fellow next door who comes home each day with a tool box or the elderly couple sitting in the same pew at church.

“It will always be our goal to continue the work that we do,” Gassen says.

But victory can be declared when hunger is stamped out for good.

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