WISHEK, N.D. — Les Otto calls the new addition to the Wishek Food Pantry “a blessing from God.”

The new addition is a refrigerator, provided by a grant from Midwest Dairy, a dairy checkoff group that represents dairy farm families in the Midwest through checkoff funds.

The new refrigerator in Wishek is one of nearly 70 commercial-grade refrigeration units Midwest Dairy placed in local food pantries.

Wishek Mayor Les Otto calls a new refrigerator at the Wishek Food Pantry "a blessing from God." (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
Wishek Mayor Les Otto calls a new refrigerator at the Wishek Food Pantry "a blessing from God." (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
The volunteer-run Wishek Food Pantry has five deep freezers in the basement of the Wishek Senior Center, as well as ample cupboard space. What it didn’t previously have was room for foods like dairy products and eggs that need to be chilled. In the past, the pantry occasionally used the city’s civic center’s refrigerator, but that is not always available.

Denise Morman knew the Wishek Food Pantry couldn’t take dairy products, so when she saw Midwest Dairy offering grants to place refrigerators in food pantries, she put in an application.

Morman and her father, Curt Rohweder, run a Wishek-area dairy farm. They were concerned about reports of dairy farmers having to dump nutritious products like milk while other people were in need of food.

“They were talking about dumping milk and we have people who need it in the country,” Rohweder said.

Whether people are buying milk for themselves or to donate someone in need, Morman said it helps dairy farmers.

“The more product that moves the better the market is,” she said.

Having the refrigerator will open the pantry up to new kinds of donations and new ways to serve the community.

“This has opened up a whole new door for us,” Otto says.

A time of need

High unemployment rates during the COVID-19 pandemic have struck food pantries especially hard. Otto says the Wishek Food Pantry has served as many as 45 families at times during its existence, but more recently the number had been down to 30. Once the pandemic started, that number has ranged from 35 to 40 families. Otto says that’s a significant number for a town of 1,000.

The pandemic also has changed the way food can be distributed. Volunteers must follow social distancing guidelines, and families picking up boxes of food can’t come inside. But Otto says that has led to some positive changes. Volunteers pack boxes inside and load the boxes into cars. That has been a more efficient process, as well as a more private one. People don’t know who is in the next car as easily as they know who is in line with them.

“People are a little less hesitant to come in. Pride is always there. I try to tell people, don’t let your family starve because of your pride. You feed your family because you’re proud,” he said.

The food pantry relies on donations. Otto credits the schools, churches and businesses with keeping the shelves filled and providing money to buy more food.

"For a city of 1,000, the donations have been phenomenal,” he says. “People really get behind the food pantry.”

In addition to providing refrigerators, Midwest Dairy also has announced it will donate $500,000 to food banks to purchase dairy products. Dairy checkoff funds aren’t usually used to purchase dairy products, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved a Midwest Dairy proposal to do so. The organization is working with dairy processors to determine what products are available and then will provide a list to food banks that can increase their dairy inventory and distribution.

“Dairy farmers work tirelessly day in and day out to help feed the world, so this tremendous contribution puts our values in action to help our hungry neighbors,” said Allen Merrill, Midwest Dairy Corporate board chairman and a dairy farmer from Parker, S.D.

Otto suggests people looking for a place to support consider giving to those in need.

“If you’re looking for a donation place, a food bank, food pantry, is a good place to do it,” he says.