Markeela Toreen: Together Against Hunger

Markeela Toreen; photo Sarah Whiting

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Jackpot Junction Casino in Morton to close in March 2020, Markeela Toreen had just been promoted to assistant marketing director. As the largest employer for the Lower Sioux Dakota community in Redwood County, the casino had to lay off more than 650 employees. At the same time, the tribal government laid off most of its staff and suspended per capita or gaming revenue payments. “Across the board, suddenly revenue stopped,” Toreen says. “This was so impactful on our community.”

As one of the few casino employees who were not laid off, Toreen began looking for ways to ensure her community’s needs were met. One of her first calls was to a friend, Lindsey Caraway, who volunteered for Ruby’s Pantry, a non-profit that had been distributing food in the Redwood area since 2014. Toreen learned that Ruby’s Pantry was looking for a new distribution site. She quickly arranged for Jackpot Junction to host an April event in its parking lot. She saw how quickly food for 300 families ran out and realized her community was facing a serious hunger issue.

Toreen contacted the Twin Cities food bank, Second Harvest, and the local St. Cornelia’s Church, as she organized a drive-through food distribution event. “I had never done any kind of food work. I had no idea how to break things down and pack them,” Toreen says. But she knew where to turn for help. “Dakota women are known for making sure families and communities are cared for.”

Anne O’Keefe stepped up as Toreen’s “right hand.” Grace Goldtooth, vice president of the Lower Sioux Tribal Council, helped organize volunteers. Several elders made and donated masks for each event.

On the morning of the April event, Toreen and the volunteers divided a semi-truck full of bulk food into individual boxes for 800 families. The boxes were placed into the trunks of cars to maintain social distance.

Throughout April and May, several food distribution events were held each month. Toreen estimates that at least 500 women volunteered. “One teacher called and said she needed food for a family,” Toreen says. “It touched my heart that even though her students weren’t in school, she was still making sure they had what they needed.”

The pandemic has been especially hard for Redwood County, where nearly 44 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. With support from the Tribal Council, and Lower Sioux’s grant writer Nora Murphy, funds were secured to open the Cansa’yapi Food Pantry in the weeks between the large distribution events. “[No one] should have to choose between groceries and making rent,” Toreen says.

When the casino reopened in June and events were scaled back, Toreen continued to support needs by helping to create an Emergency Food Weekend Backpack program for kids.

Toreen is quick to say that the work has been a collaborative effort that relied on hundreds of volunteers and the support of both casino management and the Tribal Council.

“This is the true beauty of our community coming together,” Toreen says.

Elders enjoy daily nutritious meals delivered to their homes. Students receive lunch and breakfast, even when they are not in school. Other tribal communities have been in contact to learn from their efforts.

The Lower Sioux community is making sure that families will have enough food for the winter. In addition to hiring four people to manage these new food programs, the casino’s Exposition Center, which once hosted concerts, has been transformed into a staging area for food programs.

“One of the unexpected gifts of the pandemic,” Toreen says, “is the way it has brought our community back to its core.”

A monthly healing fire brings families together and helps heal other issues in the community. “The biggest learning is that it always goes back to ‘it takes a village,’” she says. “We are a strong, strong village.”

Suggests Markeela Toreen: “Don’t be afraid to take the first step in a direction you do not typically travel. You will realize your journey is far bigger than your normal route.”