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Filling the plates

A community food pantry such as the one in Kenmare relies on people generous with time, as well as with surplus food items. Kenmare students Marissa Jensen and Kortni Medlang assist with the backpack food donation bagging.
A community food pantry such as the one in Kenmare relies on people generous with time, as well as with surplus food items. Kenmare students Marissa Jensen and Kortni Medlang assist with the backpack food donation bagging.

For 22 years, the Kenmare Food Pantry (KFP) has ensured that area residents in need have food on their plates.

“Originally, 80 percent of clients were senior citizens on limited incomes,” Director Jane Kalmbach says. “That has completely reversed, with the great majority of our clients now being families with children.”

Kalmbach didn’t envision her volunteer role stretching over two decades. The job is made easier and more rewarding by the tremendous support she receives, such as the volunteers who help at short notice when there is an emergency request and faithfully assist her with ongoing needs, the anonymous donor who gives $100 each and every month, the grocery store owner whose regular donations recently included a freezer full of hams, and the many businesses and individuals who repeatedly reach deep into their pockets.

Open the second Monday of every month, KFP operates under the guidelines of the Great Plains Food Bank (GPFB). Kalmbach said KFP distributes about 50 pounds of food on Mondays and responds the rest of the week to individual requests. During the winters, it’s not unusual to have emergency requests every week. In addition to food pantry distribution, KFP participates in other food-related ventures such as a weekly backpack program during the school year and a holiday meal partnership with the Gift of Love program.

To qualify for KFB commodities, clients complete intake forms based on GPFB guidelines. GPFB is the largest hunger-relief organization and only food bank in North Dakota. The organization guides donated surplus foods and grocery products to charitable feeding programs throughout the state. According to its website, 96 percent of every charitable dollar goes directly to hunger relief.

Two years ago, KFP tripled its space with a move to a building near Kenmare. The property owner charges no rent, and absorbs utility costs. With the extra space, Kalmbach stocks more foods and has added personal items such as diapers and cleaning and laundry items. She also purchases fresh bread, milk and eggs locally for monthly distribution.

One of Kalmbach's favorite outreaches is the backpack program begun three years ago. Every Friday, Student Council members assist KFB volunteers in preparing food bags that contain a breakfast, meal and healthy snacks. Once the bags are completed, the school principal discreetly places them in the backpacks of income-eligible students.

“In all our efforts, we try to be discreet and confidential,” Kalmbach said. “All volunteers sign a confidentiality agreement. I really emphasize the need to respect the privacy of the people we serve. I often don’t even know the results of what we do.”

Occasionally, she is rewarded by seeing the payoffs. During an art class Kalmbach taught at the school, students took a snack break. Every student returned with a snack in hand, and some were particularly excited about their snack, which Kalmbach recognized as a backpack item. She smiled privately, glad that no student had returned empty handed because there hadn’t been a snack to take from home.

With holidays and winter approaching, KFP has been coordinating donations for coats, snow pants, gloves and beanies. The holiday meal program brings together various partners that assemble packages for families. The weekend before Christmas, Burke-Divide Electric Cooperative (BDEC) staff members and other volunteers deliver a full meal and a homemade blanket to designated families. Again, Kalmbach said, the Kenmare community has been overwhelmingly generous with donations.

“We are very fortunate to have a food pantry and volunteers like Jane in our communities,” says Heidi Robbins, BDEC member services manager. “Other co-op employees and I have volunteered with Gift of Love for the last five years or so. We enjoy getting these packages out to Kenmare area residents in need of a helping hand.”

Kalmbach, who teaches art classes for adults and youth in the community, loves to teach, cook and bake. Her talents have contributed to growing the food pantry services, too. For instance, this past summer, she initiated the first summer arts program where she taught healthy cooking classes for children. She said the idea formed after seeing how many young mothers using KFP services only wanted processed or prepared foods because they don’t know how to cook. So she decided to begin preparing the younger generation with the intent that they will have those skills when they become parents.

Kalmbach likes selecting and ordering the foods she wants from GPFB. Driving to Minot for those supplies in the past took a lot of time so she appreciates that GPFB has refrigerated trucks now to deliver shelf-stable and perishable food donations to North Dakota communities. Bowbells and Powers Lake, both within 30 to 40 miles of Kenmare, also have food pantries. Kalmbach and their directors share surplus foods to minimize any waste.

Population – and jobs – have declined since the oil boom. Food pantry demand rose slightly during the boom, and continues to increase each month by two to three families. Last year's backpack program had 36 students; by November this year, 51 students qualified.

“Most of our families needing service have working parents,” Kalmbach said. “People who bought homes during the boom paid inflated prices for them. Even though they are working, they may not be making as much now. Leaving may not be an option because they can’t sell their homes. They are coming to us looking for short-term relief.”

What they tell her is that they don’t want to leave. They like Kenmare. They appreciate living in a small community where people really care about each other. And they appreciate Kenmare Food Pantry.

To learn more about GPFB’s hunger relief services and local partnerships in North Dakota, go to

Candi Helseth is a freelance writer from Minot.