COVID has made food insecurity more common for Montana

Grocery cart filled with nutritious fruits and vegetables. (Photo by greggavedon via Flickr/CC BY ND-2.0)

In every community, in every county, in every part of our state, there are too many families struggling with food insecurity. This means that because of a lack of resources or a lack of access, many families don’t have enough nutritious food.

Seniors are forced to make unthinkable choices between paying for food and filling prescriptions, parents are skipping meals to feed their children, and families are worried about whether they will run out of food before their next paycheck. Montanans living in our most rural communities face additional challenges, including significant distances to the nearest food bank or grocery store, and higher food prices.

Food insecurity is an acute problem in our state and has gotten significantly worse as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Food banks across our state distributed record amounts of food last year, serving around 20,000 Montana households each month. Forty percent of those individuals had never visited a food bank before.

Food insecurity has many faces and consequences. From seniors living on fixed incomes who are more at risk of other health issues to the youngest Montanans, food insecurity affects every age group. Not knowing if you’ll have enough food to eat affects a person’s physical and mental health. Children who are chronically hungry are more likely to experience developmental delays, struggle in school, have lower academic scores, and exhibit other behavioral issues. The number of children struggling with hunger in Montana increased dramatically in 2020.

Today, one in five children in our state is living in a home without enough food. This number is staggering and heartbreaking.

Food insecurity is also an economic issue. It creates higher preventable healthcare costs, places greater burden on our schools, and contributes to absenteeism, and lost wages and productivity in the workforce. As a result, food insecurity and poverty are entangled, with hunger having long-term consequences for individuals, families, communities and local economies.

We are a group of funders in Montana who care deeply about the work that foodbanks and other organizations are doing to address hunger and food security, especially in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. Food banks throughout Montana have been heroic in their response to the crisis created by the pandemic. They have responded to a surge of new demand as it became more difficult to keep food on the shelves, health and safety concerns limited the role of volunteers, and distribution models were forced to shift overnight and operate in an environment of unpredictability. They have stepped up and stepped in to take care of hungry families in our communities. But they (and those who fund them) cannot do it alone. The food bank system was never intended to solve the problem of food insecurity in our state on its own.

Government and state lawmakers have a role to play in helping to ensure that their neighbors aren’t hungry. In order to truly address food insecurity in Montana, the work of the charitable food bank system must be complemented by a robust and long-term federal and state policy response. A response that ensures SNAP, school meals, and other public nutrition programs remain accessible and strong, and places the wellbeing of Montanans struggling to feed their families at the center of all policies.

We know our state can work together to combat food insecurity. We are a state that takes care of one another and solves problems. We know that these issues are not Republican or Democratic issues – they are Montana issues. Only in working together will we be able to truly address hunger in our communities, and move forward from this crisis stronger and healthier than before.

This column was jointly written by the AMB West Philanthropies of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, Caroline Kurtz ,Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, Headwaters Foundation, High Stakes Foundation, Montana Community Foundation, Martha Newell, and The Steele-Reese Foundation.