BROOKINGS, S.D. - If your refrigerator and pantry shelves are stocked, food security is not something you spend much time thinking about—unless you are Darci Bultje.
Although the mom of three has a fully stocked kitchen, in her professional role as Community Services Director for the Rural Office of Community Services (ROCS), Bultje spends the workweek focused on improving access to food for families throughout the Lake Andes community through the ROCS Food Pantry.
"Food is something we all need. When it is not available to you, it impacts all aspects of your life," Bultje explains. "Every three years we conduct a needs assessment. Throughout our 20-county service area, food ranks among the top one or two basic needs of those we serve."
Courtesy of Darcy Bultje. SDSU Extension Voices for Food toolkit guided the Lake Andes Rural Office of Community Services (ROCS) team through a food pantry update that made the pantry more user-friendly for patrons and allows it to provide healthier food-choice options including more fresh produce. ROCS Outreach Provider, Becky Sieh is pictured here stocking shelves. "Today, our pantry gives patrons more of a sense of ownership over their food decisions. Instead of us handing them a box we packed, and us deciding what their family should eat, they now have an opportunity to select foods that are healthy and their family will eat," said Darci Bultje, Community Services Director for the Rural Office of Community Service.
Thanks to Voices for Food, an SDSU Extension program that bolsters community support and provides flexible tools to help citizens build food security, Bultje and her co-workers are not alone in this focus.
"When you live in a poverty-stricken community, it seems like there are so many barriers to overcome. Voices for Food brought together such good people from our community. It provided us with guidance and tools to take down some of these barriers together. It made all the difference," explains Bultje of the SDSU Extension pilot program the community of Lake Andes began utilizing in 2014.
Like many rural communities, Lake Andes is considered a food desert, because most residents live 10 miles from a supermarket. Many of its community members are among the 12.6 percent of South Dakota households which experience low or very low food security.
Developing a food council is one of many how-to tips and best practices outlined in the Voices for Food toolkit. And, in the case of Lake Andes, the food council was the catalyst for citizen-led solutions to food insecurity.
"The food council brought together community members to address food security challenges and Voices for Food really opened their eyes to opportunities. Together they were able to set actionable goals and develop activities and programs to achieve those goals," said Ann Schwader, SDSU Extension Nutrition Field Specialist and Voices for Food South Dakota Project Coordinator. "My role through SDSU Extension, was to listen to their needs and help them mold some of the many tried and true solutions found within the Voices for Food toolkit to fit their unique needs."
Schwader, under the direction of Suzanne Stluka, SDSU Extension Food & Families Program Director, was among a multi-state group of professionals who brought the Voices for Food pilot program to rural food deserts as part of a $4 million Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
SDSU Extension was selected to lead in this research project which began in 2013. The other land-grant universities involved in Voices for Food program include; Michigan State University, Purdue University, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, The Ohio State University and University of Missouri-Columbia.
Once the Lake Andes Food & Wellness Council was developed in 2015, Schwader met regularly with its members to discuss how Lake Andes could utilize the flexible resources found within the Voices for Food toolbox to improve food security.
Made up of community stakeholders the Lake Andes Food & Wellness Council, has worked with SDSU Extension personnel and utilized Voices for Food toolkit as well as grants from other organizations to increase food security in their community.
Most notably, since 2015 the steps citizens of Lake Andes took to increase food security under the leadership of the Lake Andes Food & Wellness Council include the following:
- Update the current food pantry to be a more user-friendly and provide healthier food-choice options including more fresh produce;
- Develop a community garden where citizens and school children gain hands-on gardening training and enjoy fresh vegetables throughout the growing season. Extra produce is shared with the ROCS Food Pantry and Andes Central school lunch program;
- Set the groundwork for a community farmers market, planned to launch summer 2018;
- Implement Bountiful Backpacks, an SDSU Extension program designed to teach youth how to prepare healthy meals and sends youth home with ingredients to make a meal for their family;
- Partnered with the Yankton Sioux Tribe to provide 865 evening meals to youth during the summer months; and
- In November 2016, when the local grocery store closed, the council helped promote public meetings around a community grocery store, which resulted in the owner of a grocery store in a neighboring community purchasing and reopening the store in Lake Andes.
"Food is a basic need. You cannot begin to address other needs until it is met. Voices for Food has increased awareness of food and nutritional needs of children and adults throughout our community. It has provided opportunities for citizens to think outside the box and work together to increase food security," said Debera Lucas, Superintendent of Andes Central School District and a member of the Lake Andes Food and Wellness Council. "Through the food council our community has expanded the ways we approach food security."
As an educator, Lucas appreciates the hands-on nature of the solutions found within the Voices for Food toolkit. For example, sixth-graders were recruited to start plants from seed for community garden participants to use. And, using a suggestion from the toolbox, the food pantry was rearranged so that today's patrons "shop" the food pantry according to nutritional needs and family preferences.
"Today, our pantry gives patrons more of a sense of ownership over their food decisions. Instead of us handing them a box we packed, and us deciding what their family should eat, they now have an opportunity to select foods that are healthy and their family will eat," Bultje said.
Voices for Food: A step-by-step guide
Just like Bultje used tips found in the Voices for Food toolkit to redesign the food pantry, the council followed a Voices for Food best practice and made a community needs assessment one of its first items of business.
Through this needs assessment, the food council learned many residents ran out of funds and food before their EBT cards were restocked; it was difficult to access fresh produce, and the only prepared food options available in their community were fast food options.
The findings didn't surprise Mary Jo Parker, a retired educator, community volunteer and director of the public library, who was elected to serve as the food council chairperson and is the community garden coordinator.
Throughout her 40-plus year career working with Lake Andes youth, Parker sees daily reminders of food insecurity. She saw a need to provide healthy, after school snacks at the library so she reached out to Bultje, who she got to know through involvement on the food council, to see if ROCS would be able to supply the ingredients.
News spread. Every day after school hungry children pack into the library for snacks and then hang out to read or enjoy computer time. When summer vacation time rolled around, Parker maintained snack time at the library.
When she learned that the small afternoon snack was the only meal some youth had access to during summer months, she shared her concerns with the food council. The group collaborated with the Yankton Sioux Tribe on a grant to provide community youth with an evening meal. More than 850 meals were served throughout summer 2017. A summer meal program is scheduled again for 2018.
"Providing meals is a very nurturing act," Parker explained. "Being a part of Voices for Food makes me feel good because I am part of something that is lasting. Hopefully I'm teaching them gardening and food preparation skills they can use."
As an SDSU Extension program, the Voices for Food toolkit will be available to all South Dakota communities in the fall of 2018.
"This program is flexible. Whatever your community's food security needs are, Voices for Food can serve as a guide to help citizens meet those needs with research-based best practices that have worked for others," Stluka explained. "It's a great example of our Land Grant mission of outreach, research and teaching."
To learn more, contact Suzanne Stluka.