In rural areas, a small group aims to curb hunger
LAKOTA, N.D. -- Gunny Schmidt was nearing what many people call retirement age back in 1988, when she decided Lakota needed a community food cupboard to help the needy.
LAKOTA, N.D. - Gunny Schmidt was nearing what many people call retirement age back in 1988, when she decided Lakota needed a community food cupboard to help the needy.
She collected $20 in donations, including $10 from her husband, Marcus, and founded the Lakota Food Pantry.
"There was no money to provide the service for people in need, and there were plenty of them," she said.
Schmidt operated the private nonprofit store for 27 years, collecting donations and recruiting volunteers to help keep shelves stocked and to fill holiday food baskets for needy residents all over Nelson County at Thanksgiving and Christmas. While they put together 124 baskets for one holiday in 1994, these days the number usually is about 30 per holiday.
Now 91, she finally stepped away this fall.
Schmidt, a long-time substitute teacher at Lakota and a member of the Nelson County Social Services Board for 39 years, recently sold her home and moved into Prairie Rose Assisted Living Apartments.
Schmidt was reluctant to stop, fearing that nobody would step up to provide the service.
After asking around the community, four women volunteered to lead the effort: Ruth Stevens, who retired in 2014 after a three-decade career as Nelson County recorder/clerk of district court, and State Bank of Lakota employees Melody Johnson, Candace Riely and Jamy Shirek.
They've renamed the privately run nonprofit food pantry "Gunny's Kitchen," in her honor.
The pantry, open 4:30 to 6 p.m. the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month, is just one example of rural volunteers and nonprofits working to address rural poverty issues.
According to the U.S. Census, the median North Dakota household income in 2014 was $59,029 and 11.9 percent of people lived below the poverty level. Among northeastern counties, only households in Steele County earn more than the state's median household income while two counties-Grand Forks and Ramsey-had a higher percentage of people living below the poverty level.
In Minnesota, none of the eight most northwestern counties are within $7,000 of the state's $61,481 median household income. Four counties-Clearwater, Norman, Polk and Red Lake-had a greater percentage of residents living in poverty when compared to the state's poverty rate of 11.5 percent.
Schmidt recalls meeting with a group of women from Northwood, N.D., which also was starting a local food pantry in 1988, the same year the Lakota pantry began.
"They said they didn't realize that people were struggling, that there was such a need," she said.
When she started out, Schmidt received a list of families in need from the county social services office. Then, she and other board members would contact them.
Word spread quickly, and before long, people started coming to the pantry. It's a trend that has continued for nearly three decades.
"Generally, it's younger people, parents of small children," Stevens said.
"They didn't have anything for supper," Schmidt added.
Demand fluctuated a bit with the economy over the years. Fewer people sought help during the first few years of the western North Dakota oil boom. But the demand is growing again, Schmidt said.
The Lakota Food Pantry also known as "Gunny's Kitchen" is located at Lakota Lutheran Church.
Nearly one in 10-9.6 percent-of Nelson County's 3,045 residents lives in poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics for 2014. That compares with 11.5 percent for all of North Dakota and 14.8 percent nationwide.
Great Plains Food Bank, which operates a food distribution program in North Dakota, provided 4,589 pounds of food, valued at $7,893, to Nelson County in 2014. The food was distributed through the Michigan (N.D.) Food Pantry and the McVille Mobile Food Pantry.
The Lakota Food Pantry, which is not a 501c3 tax-exempt nonprofit, relies on donations because it doesn't qualify as a Great Plains partner agency. But it still has its supporters.
"The community has been very good," Schmidt said.
The local Lutheran Brotherhood chapter donated $500 for Christmas baskets that first year, in 1988.
"We started out giving turkeys and everything for a full meal in our baskets," she said. "But we switched to hams. Many people, especially men and young mothers, didn't know what to do with the turkeys, how to prepare them."
For years, local churches designated the third Sunday of each month as "Food Pantry Sunday," to accept donations of non-perishable items, Stevens said. Now, other special events are held.
Schools have been part of the effort, too. Lakota Education Association and Lakota High School Student Council regularly conduct fundraisers and food drives to help stock the shelves.
Meal and a shower
Formally, the Lakota Food Pantry has had regular store hours over the years, whether it was located in the former Lakota Hotel, the back of the Nelson County Abstract building or Lakota Lutheran Church, the present site.
But Schmidt never really considered it closed.
She normally took 15 to 20 calls a month from local families or people traveling through who needed food assistance, sometimes as many as four families in one day.
Back when the pantry was in the hotel, it sometimes served as an emergency rescue mission, where Schmidt provided both room and board.
"A lot of times you do that, you just do that," she said.
She's even offered her own home.
She recalls one couple that had stopped at the Nelson County Social Services looking for help after the husband lost his job in Missouri. They had been traveling the country looking for work, from Missouri to California, to Washington, and to North Dakota while on their way back home.
The county social service office could help, she said, but it took a few days to process the paperwork.
"They looked poor. They had nothing. They asked if there was any place in town where they could get a bath. Finally, I said, come over to the house," she said.
"I got scolded for that," Schmidt said. "But they made it back to their hometown and he got a job. They were the only ones that ever sent me a thank-you note."
Although Schmidt found herself in a bit of trouble with the Social Services board for that gesture, those who have known her for years say that's just the way she always has been.
"I've never known a more caring, compassionate person than Gunny Schmidt," said Nelson County Social Services Director Marcia Beglau. "She's the epitome of the caring, giving spirit that the world needs. She definitely is my hero in life. We should all be more like her."