Food banks across Montana, and particularly in the Flathead Valley, have seen an unprecedented surge in demand as economic stagnation and high unemployment have persisted in the state.
“It’s been crazy. We had a record month last month,” said Flathead Food Bank Director Lori Botkin. “Overall we’ve been up about 27 percent over last year.”
The food bank served a record 1,812 families in September, compared to 1,121 during the same month last year. And if this year follows last year’s trends, Botkin expects the numbers to increase over the next couple of months.
“If the trend continues, we’re going to be serving 2,000 families a month by the end of the year,” she said.
The Missoula-based Montana Food Bank Network, a sort of wholesale distributor for food banks across the state, has experienced a similar trend.
In 2006, the network distributed 2.2 million pounds of food and its partner food banks had a total of 322,253 visits. So far this year, the network’s partner food banks have 717,061 visits and it has distributed 6.3 million pounds of food.
Director Peggy Grimes said the network is on track to distributing more than 8 million pounds of food by the end of year.
“When you look at going over 8 million pounds, that’s a lot of food that needs to be in the emergency food system,” Grimes said. And there’s no certainty that volume can be maintained in the year to come because of the network’s reliance on government funding.
“Obviously, with the state budget the way it is right now we don’t know if we’ll be successful” in getting similar funding for the next two years, Grimes said. If not, “we’re going to be in a bad way as far as providing food to people.”
The North Valley Food Bank — which operates independently from the Flathead Food Bank — relies on the network for about half of its food, said director June Munski-Feenan.
“Without the Montana Food Bank Network, we would be in trouble,” she said. “We get a nice share from them.”
Munski-Feenan said demand at the North Valley Food Bank has increased by only about 10 percent over the last couple of years, and she believes that is because of the high cost of living in the Whitefish area. Those who can’t afford to live there tend to move elsewhere.
But still, the food bank is busy, serving between 125 and 160 families a week and averaging a distribution of about 4,800 pounds weekly.
Two years ago the state Legislature passed along $2.2 million to the Montana Food Bank Network specifically for food purchases, and about $1.7 million of that came from one-time federal stimulus funding.
Grimes said food banks have seen similar changes in client demographics, especially in the last few years.
“When I first started here about 18 years ago, we were providing mostly to single men. You didn’t see a lot of families with children. The bulk of people we are seeing now are families with children,” she said.
Since the latter part of 2008, she said, food banks have been serving more people who are working full-time, low-paying jobs.
Botkin has similar observations.
“There’s just a lot more working people who are not making ends meet,” she said. “In the last few years, it’s people driving fancy cars who lost their jobs and they are totally upside down. They don’t know what to do.”
The September unemployment rate in Montana is 7.4 percent and in Flathead County, it is 9.8 percent. But those numbers do not include people who were formerly self-employed or people who are no longer actively seeking work.
Montana has a population of just under 1 million people and 143,000 people are living with incomes at or below the poverty level — $22,000 for a family of four.
Grimes said food banks in Montana’s urban areas have become the busiest, and she identified the Flathead as the statewide hot spot for food bank demand.
The Montana Food Bank Network used to send a refrigerated semi-trailer on a northern route to Kalispell, with the truck also making food drops in places like Ronan and Polson along the way. Starting late last year, the food demand in the Flathead required exclusive, nonstop truck deliveries to Kalispell, Grimes said.
The network provides roughly half of the food to the statewide emergency food network, with the rest being donated and purchased at the local level.
Many local food banks have struggled with donations, Grimes said, with traditional donors less able to provide as much food or cash contributions as they used to.
Fortunately, food donations to the Flathead and North Valley food banks remain strong, largely because of volume donations made by local grocery stores.
“Everything has been working great,” Munski-Feenan said. “We have a wonderful town that supports us.”
She noted that the real estate community recently contributed 4,000 pounds of food, the result of an annual drive. Churches and community groups make similar efforts.
“Without our help, they do their own food drives, and I like that,” Munski-Feenan said.
“At the local level, we feel very blessed. At the nationwide level, you hear about food banks running out of food,” Botkin said. “The challenge to us right is the cash donations have really gone down.”
A decline in donated funds has also been a problem for the statewide network.
While funding from the Legislature goes entirely toward food purchases, operational costs at the network’s Missoula facility are supported by donations and other sources such as grants.
Last spring, the network cut $500,000 from its budget, and since then its staff has been reduced from 25 to 14 people. On the bright side, the network recently received a $250,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that allowed for the purchase of two refrigerated trailers and repairs to the facility’s roof.
Grimes said trucking food to food banks across a state as big as Montana is challenging and costly, but still the network has managed to keep its operations costs at just 6 percent of its overall budget, while 94 percent of costs “are directed at getting food out the door.”
As part of its public policy program, the network conducts a survey of clients at partner food banks across the state every two years.
“We talk directly to clients about what they are experiencing,” Grimes said.
A survey was carried over the summer and a report is being prepared on the results to present to state lawmakers when the legislative session convenes in January.
Flathead Food Bank, located in the Gateway West Mall building, can be contacted at 752-3663 or online at http://www.flatheadfoodbank.com. Branch food pantries are located in Bigfork, Evergreen, Marion and Martin City.
The North Valley Food Bank is located at 311 E. First St. in Whitefish and be contacted at 862-5863.
The Montana Food Bank Network can be reached at 406-721-3825 or online at http://www.mfbn.org