Montana food pantries still busy; clients seek food, company

‘They’re desperate for a human to talk to’

By: - August 23, 2021 6:44 pm

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

When clients show up at Pantry Partners Food Bank in Stevensville, it’s not just for produce or canned goods.

“We have a lot of seniors,” said Janet Weber, a volunteer for the Pantry Partners. “It’s been really hard on them, not just from a food need but just emotionally. We’ve noticed they stand and talk longer.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to run its course and the highly contagious delta variant pushes up infections, some elderly clients and veterans are not comfortable going out in the community. Weber said they may have given up going to church, for instance, but they still go to the food bank.

“You can just tell they’re desperate for a human to talk to,” Weber said.

Generally, the Montana Food Bank Network’s Gayle Carlson said demand for food has stabilized in the state since the pandemic hit, but winter may bring more struggles. The Network supports 346 programs and pantries across Montana.

Carlson, chief executive officer of the Network, said a few factors are helping families at this point, including a temporary increase in SNAP benefits, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the child tax credit advance. She said once school starts, children get help with meals at school as well.

In 2019, the Network distributed 14.3 million pounds of food, and it gave out 19.2 million pounds in 2020. Carlson said distribution generally has returned to pre-pandemic levels, but people who need assistance are coming in more frequently.

In the meantime, the food supply chain is struggling, and the cost of food is going up 2 percent to 3 percent in 2021, Carlson said. Once additional support for families sunsets and eviction moratoriums lift, she said the perfect storm will have brewed.

“Once that happens, families are going to be struggling dramatically again,” she said. “Right now they’re holding their own.”

At the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center, development and advocacy director Jessica Allred said the need for services declined as stimulus funds hit families, which could be expected. She said the Food Bank hit a record in 2020 — and not a good one — and it continues to be busier than it was before the pandemic. She said underemployment remains a problem.

“Often, the Food Bank is one of the first services people look for when they are maybe experiencing temporary economic hardship just as a safety net, as a way to get through some temporary challenges,” Allred said. “But we do continue to see many families who are brand new to our services.”

In the Missoula area, the cost of housing and complications with child care play a role, she said. In the past, parents might have been able to send their little one to child care with the sniffles, but caregivers are highly vigilant now because of COVID-19, she said. In some cases, parents are taking time off of work because of the lack of availability in child care, or maybe because someone in the household has an underlying health condition, and they’re limiting exposure.

“It’s just a really challenging time with child care, but for a lot of different reasons,” Allred said.

However, she said the Food Bank is pleased with a move the Biden Administration made to the Thrifty Food Plan, which informs SNAP benefits. In October, she said the benefits will see a permanent increase.

“We’re so encouraged by it,” Allred said.

Weber, though, said challenges still exist. The economy is firing strong in Montana, and development is bringing more people and their pocketbooks to the Bitterroot. Nonetheless, she estimated the food bank in Stevensville, population roughly 2,000, still sees 175 to 350 clients each month.

She said seniors are experiencing new barriers as well. This year, they have to recertify their eligibility for benefits, and they tell her the additional paperwork is a stressor, she said.

“It just bothers me that they’re the ones that suffer because a lot of them, their hands shake filling out forms, and it’s difficult physically,” Weber said. “And they’re not technologically savvy. Your eyesight, everything goes. It’s hard for them to do it online. One of our regular seniors, she couldn’t even sign her signature today because literally, her hand was shaking.”

The situation isn’t all negative, though, she said. Pantry Partners also has seen more grants made available, much generosity from farmers who donate produce left over from the farmers’ market, and “tremendous” support from the community.

“Everyone who does have any spare anything, canned goods or just pocket change, whatever, people have been incredibly, incredibly generous,” Weber said.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.