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In Rural Nebraska, Combating Hunger From The Pandemic Is A Community Effort


As we heard earlier this hour, the coronavirus pandemic has complicated efforts to get food to those who need it in communities all across the country. And that's especially true in the more rural parts of the country. Harvest Public Media's Christina Stella reports on how people in one small town in rural Nebraska have found new ways to feed hungry people.

CHRISTINA STELLA, BYLINE: Lexington, Neb., population 11,000, isn't exactly used to traffic. But over the past few months, a line of cars has been forming at the edge of town like clockwork every Thursday morning since June.


STELLA: They're headed toward a white tent outside St. Ann's Parish in the hopes of picking up a USDA Farmers to Families Food Box.

MICHAELA KOPF: Sometimes it's lined up all the way to Highway 30. So there is definitely a need, and it has increased since COVID for sure.

STELLA: That's Michaela Kopf at the Lexington Community Foundation. She stands in the heat, directing cars to the tent. Most weeks, 700 boxes of food are gone in an hour. Like many rural areas, food insecurity is a chronic problem in Lexington, where 16% of residents live below the poverty line. Martha Draskovic, who's managed the town's food pantry for 10 years, says it didn't take long for COVID-19 to give her a surge in demand.

MARTHA DRASKOVIC: It became clear when my shelf started going empty (laughter). So we kind of had to do a new game plan.

STELLA: Many families rely on their kids getting two meals a day at school. Losing that coupled with a sudden increase in unemployment was the perfect storm. People who didn't typically use the pantry or qualify for programs like SNAP were suddenly in need.

DRASKOVIC: But once they were home for two to three weeks, I mean, they were still out of income, but yet no food.

STELLA: Empty shelves weren't her only hurdle. Supply chains nationwide were faltering. Tammy Jeffs at the Community Action Partnership of Mid-Nebraska says it was hard to stay afloat without hurting the rest of the town. Jeffs and Draskovic found themselves driving across central Nebraska in search of pantry staples like peanut butter and pasta.

TAMMY JEFFS: If we go in and buy 40 packs of something, and all the grocery store is getting is 50 packs, you've now just sent everybody to your pantry because you bought everything. So (laughter)...

STELLA: Plus, once they found the food, they had to figure out how to get it to people who couldn't come to the pantry. Some were seniors. Others were workers at the local Tyson meatpacking plant, where hundreds of employees had been quarantined without a way to get food. So Draskovic started delivering.

DRASKOVIC: At first, there was just myself. We were just doing that. And then I kind of, you know, recruited other people to start coming in and just helping.

STELLA: When it got around town that the pantry was struggling, residents made sure it was stocked.

DRASKOVIC: We started getting different, you know, financial donations, items. Businesses started reaching out. And, you know, now we kind of have a back stock, so we're kind of prepared to see if we get that second roundabout.

STELLA: Orthman Manufacturing, an agricultural equipment company, is one of the local businesses that's helped distribute food. Plant manager Scott McKelvey says close-knit community ties have made all the difference. He called a friend at the local Rotary Club to bring Hot Meals USA to town, serving 18,000 meals since April.

SCOTT MCKELVEY: It doesn't matter if somebody drives up in 2017 Cadillac decked out to the nines. Nobody cares because you don't know what's going on with that family.

STELLA: These kinds of mutual aid networks give him hope. Lately, he says, he's needed it.

MCKELVEY: With everything else that's going on in the United States right now, this is a feel-good moment. And it's not just in the Midwest. There's these moments that are going on all over the country to help feed families in need.

STELLA: He makes his way back under the tent. Most of the boxes are gone. McKelvey and the other volunteers start loading up their cars and figuring out where to deliver the extra food. It doesn't take them long to make a plan.

For NPR News, I'm Christina Stella. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christina Stella