Montana food stores grapple with increased demand and a bumpy economy

Colorful boxes and boxes of lunch were lined up on the shelves of an Arlee Community Development Corporation pantry one summer morning. Store workers, including program manager Donna Molica, stocked the day before, in preparation for a new week of distribution.

Although the shelves were full that morning, Molika says she doesn’t stay that way for long these days. Arlee’s pantry usually has enough food for 30 families per week. But demand doubled in April.

“So we were surprised, and we ran out of food,” Molika says.

Molika says the store was surprised by the rise.

It was really clear that it was a response to inflation. We had people come in who had never used a pantry before.”

Moleka says many families in the Joko Valley are commuting to work, and gas prices in Montana have been too falls more slowly from other countries. Add to that rising rents and food prices, and Arley’s store finds itself in the middle of a perfect storm.

The store is not alone in seeing an increase in demand for food assistance. The Missoula Food Bank told MTPR that the early months of 2022 were their busiest ever. Flathead Food Bank customers jumped by a third this spring, with the number of store users increasing for the first time.

Gail Carlson is CEO of the Montana Food Bank Network.

“What we’ve been hearing from our agencies, over the past few months, are some dramatic increases,” she says.

With emergency funding and donations dwindling in the age of the pandemic and food and gas prices soaring, pantry staff say they are dealing with a unique set of challenges.

Carlson led the state’s network of food banks for nine years, and says rural areas, communities that rely on retail, service industry and seasonal workers have especially struggled to buy food these days because wages haven’t risen alongside expenses.

Despite the challenges, Carlson says she’s not too concerned about the future of Montana’s food banks.

“I think if there’s a group of organizations that are resilient, it’s stores, because they figured out how to get the most out of what little they had,” Carlson says.

Austin Amistoi

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Public Radio Montana

Canned goods await patrons at the Arlee Community Development Corporation food pantry Thursday, July 7. Beyond the non-perishable items, store workers have been hard at work developing dehydrated meals, which they say are in high demand.

Montana stores are looking for solutions to keep up with the increasing demand.

The Montana Food Bank Network says it is developing a proposal for first-of-its-kind state legislation to support local stores and farmers.

Livingston’s Food Sourcing Center is working with Hoba Mountain, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, and other organizations to develop “food hubs” — networks of stores across the state that will share access to locally grown foods, programming, and other resources.

Michael McCormick recently retired from a 12-year assignment leading the Livingston Center for Food Resources, and he says pantries must work to tackle what he has called the root cause of food insecurity: poverty.

“Food stores have a real opportunity to not provide this invisible support to people in need — each of them has the opportunity to step up and make a difference in their community,” McCormick says.

Back in Arlee, Donna Mollica, former Confederate President Salish and Kotenai Shelley Viant are working on a “food mastery” initiative for the store – teaching the people of the Goku Valley how to grow and cook using local foods and indigenous techniques. Viant said she first heard about the term at a conference while serving on the CSKT board.

One of the things I heard at that meeting was that ‘a nation that cannot feed itself is not really sovereign,’ says Viant. ‘So, being from a sovereign nation, I thought long and hard about it.’

Arlee’s store also plans to use a new dryer to start serving easy-to-make meals to local families, and Fyant is developing programming to teach entrepreneurial skills to Jocko Valley youth. Moleka and Vayant say they’ve secured enough grant funding and donations to get them in 2023, but additional increases in demand or prices could derail those plans.

Molika says, despite the headache, she doesn’t lose sleep about the future of the store.

“If we put our minds and hearts together, and keep doing the good work we are doing, the money we need will come.”

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