FREEMAN — The annual “festival of tasting” that takes place on the campus of Freeman Academy will once again take an alternative form this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt life in South Dakota and around the country.
Schmeckfest, a two-weekend event that celebrates the food and heritage of the Germans from Russia who settled in and around the Freeman area, usually draws a crowd of thousands from around the country to enjoy traditional foods and craft demonstrations. But with the specter of the global pandemic still active, organizers decided once again to cancel the traditional form of the event and explore other ways to keep the spirit and fellowship of the event alive.
Canceling the event for a second year was disappointing, but a necessary step, said Meranda Van Ningen.
“We weren’t expecting to (cancel it) twice,” Van Ningen, a spokesperson for the event, told the Mitchell Republic recently.
The event, held over two weekends in March, has been a steady presence in the community since it was first held in 1959. The group meal featuring traditional fare eventually expanded to include demonstrations of traditional craftwork and a musical performed by local and area musicians and actors, among other staples. It had never been fully canceled for any reason until the 2020 event, when organizers pulled the plug late in the preparation stages as the outbreak began to roll across the country.
The Freeman Academy Auxiliary, which oversees preparations for the event, decided last fall that it would hold off for a second year when they couldn’t find a way to guarantee the safety of visitors and the hundreds of volunteers.
“We looked at every possible way to make this go back to the traditional format as early as possible. We have an older demographic of people who visit,” Van Ningen said. “We did not feel comfortable. And being held in the colder months, we can’t utilize outdoor space. We just did not feel we would be doing our best for our guests.”
The cancelation of the full event is a blow to the small private school, which utilizes Schmeckfest as its biggest fundraiser of the year. The loss of being able to gather and celebrate local heritage through food and demonstrations is a great one, but funds brought in through Schmeckfest go a long way in supporting the school’s bottom line. Losing that for one year is tough, losing it two years in a row is highly disappointing.
The public and school boosters have been understanding and thankfully their support has not waivered.
“They really knew what a hit that was to lose it for one year and how crucial a traditional Schmeckfest is for us every year,” Van Ningen said. “We haven’t had one fundraising event since March of 2020. We really need Schmeckfest. We need these events.”
To help take the edge off of losing the large-scale Schmeckfest, the school is planning another round of alternative events that will help continue the beloved tradition, even if it takes on a different look. A drive-through arrangement, similar to what was put together at the last minute in 2020, will allow the public to order some of the more popular food items from the annual meal and pick them up in a contactless setup. Though details are still being finalized, the drive-through is expected to take place in the Pioneer Hall parking lot on the Freeman Academy campus. Orders will be taken online through schmeckfest.com.
Organizers expect to release specifics on ordering and pickup in the coming days, Van Ningen said.
It will certainly be a smaller event than usual, but holding it will help keep Schmeckfest in the forefront of the minds of the community members and visitors who attend the meal and musical. And with current infection statistics showing active COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in a general decline, there is hope that the two-year hiatus will be the last for the event for years to come.
“I always am about optimism. I’m excited we have the drive-through, and this year it’s a blessing, because it could have been nothing,” Van Ningen said. “There are fewer cases, the vaccine is making headway, and I do feel it can look very promising for next year. Will there be changes? Possibly. Will it be the exact same as it was two years ago? Possibly. People want Schmeckfest.”
More information on Schmeckfest can be found at schmeckfest.com.