In Montana, Food Banks Battle Surging Demand and Shifting Supply Chains

Joseph Bullington April 27, 2020

Aaron Brock, Executive Director of the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center, finishes a prepackaged bag of groceries for patrons on April 27, 2020.

Edi­tor’s Note: This arti­cle is pub­lished in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Mon­tana Free Press.

Brent Weis­gram was too swamped to do a phone interview. 

As chief oper­a­tions offi­cer, he over­sees food pur­chas­ing and dis­tri­b­u­tion for the Mon­tana Food Bank Net­work, head­quar­tered in Mis­soula, and his trou­bles can be summed up in a few fig­ures, which he sent in an email.

MFBN has shipped 1.6 mil­lion meals to Mon­tana food pantries in the last month ― half a mil­lion more than dur­ing the same peri­od last year. And as need has surged, so has the price of cer­tain sta­ples. A case of peanut but­ter, for exam­ple, cur­rent­ly costs about 45% more than usual.

The num­bers illus­trate how the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, which has pushed tens of thou­sands of Mon­tanans out of work and sent shud­ders through com­mer­cial and retail sup­ply chains, has hit food banks from both sides.

MFBN dis­trib­utes food to 167 part­ners across the state, and Chief Pro­grams Offi­cer Stephanie Strat­ton said many local pantries have seen surges in need. At rur­al pantries, Strat­ton said, the increase has so far been more mod­est than MFBN expect­ed ― between 10 and 20%. At pantries in the big sev­en” Mon­tana cities, mean­while, need has surged by 30 to 60%. 

Vis­its to the Food Resource Cen­ter in Liv­ingston have increased by 300% since mid-March. In the last two weeks of March alone, the Mis­soula Food Bank pro­vid­ed food to 500 house­holds that had nev­er used the resource before. 

Based on what we’re see­ing local­ly here in Mis­soula, it’s most­ly ser­vice indus­try work­ers who have been laid off or had their hours cut,” Strat­ton said. Maybe they were doing OK before, liv­ing pay­check to pay­check, but this thing pushed them over the edge.”

Besides putting peo­ple out of work, the clo­sures of schools, restau­rants, bars and oth­er busi­ness­es have had anoth­er impor­tant impact on food pantries: The clo­sures have slack­ened demand for food from the com­mer­cial sup­ply chain. Mean­while, more peo­ple are eat­ing at home and stock­ing up on gro­ceries, which has stressed the con­sumer sup­ply chain that stocks gro­cery stores. Food secu­ri­ty non­prof­it Feed­ing America’s gro­cery res­cue pro­gram, which diverts food that is approach­ing its sell-by date to food banks, has dried up because, as Strat­ton put it, there was noth­ing left on the shelves for the gro­cery stores to donate.”

For food banks, the results have been mixed: The MFBN ware­house, for exam­ple, is awash with milk, which would nor­mal­ly have been sold to schools, and even has plen­ty of fresh pro­duce, but has strug­gled to main­tain sup­plies of some non-per­ish­able food-bank sta­ples. Food from the com­mer­cial sup­ply chain can be repack­aged into fam­i­ly-sized quan­ti­ties, but that takes time. So, accord­ing to Weis­gram, if he needs canned veg­eta­bles or canned tuna or peanut but­ter or frozen ground beef and he places orders six to eight weeks out, he can get those foods at rough­ly pre-pan­dem­ic prices. If he needs them in three to six weeks, he pays 30 to 45% more, he said. 

Increased food need and increased costs mean MFBN, which is fund­ed sole­ly by dona­tions and grants, is spend­ing more mon­ey. So far, Strat­ton said, finan­cial donors have been gen­er­ous, but she’s not sure they’ll be able to sus­tain their cur­rent lev­el of giving.

It’s all brand-new ter­ri­to­ry,” she said. I don’t think we could keep up this pace long-term.”

* * *

Food banks were nev­er meant to be a long-term solu­tion to hunger in Amer­i­ca, as Nicholas Kul­ish points out in a New York Times arti­cle. The idea was born in Phoenix, Ari­zona, in 1967, spread nation­wide in the 1970s, and con­tin­ued to grow in the ear­ly 1980s as the econ­o­my went into reces­sion and Pres­i­dent Ronald Rea­gan cut social sup­port pro­grams. Even today, the impor­tance of food banks is dwarfed in com­par­i­son by the Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance Pro­gram (SNAP), the fed­er­al pro­gram for­mer­ly known as food stamps, which pro­vides about nine meals for every one pro­vid­ed by food banks nationwide.

Aaron Brock, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Mis­soula Food Bank and Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter, said he’s seen the impact of the fed­er­al resource on food assis­tance demand firsthand. 

In Brock­’s account, the coro­n­avirus cri­sis hit Mon­tana in mid-March, a cou­ple of weeks before Gov. Steve Bul­lock­’s stay-at-home order was imple­ment­ed. The Mis­soula Food Bank insti­tut­ed a new mod­el of oper­a­tions on March 16: Vol­un­teer shifts were sus­pend­ed in favor of a lean team that’s work­ing real­ly hard,” and pre-packed, grab-and-go box­es were offered in place of the usu­al gro­cery-store mod­el ― all to lim­it the num­ber of peo­ple in the build­ing at one time and main­tain social distancing. 

The next two weeks were extreme­ly busy,” Brock said ― 50% busier than usu­al, with 200 house­holds per day pick­ing up food. Since then, demand has tapered off, to the point that now the pantry is only about 10% busier than its pre-pan­dem­ic stan­dard. Brock attrib­ut­es the slow­down to peo­ple becom­ing eli­gi­ble for full SNAP ben­e­fits and receiv­ing their $1,200 stim­u­lus checks. 

The prob­lem, Brock said, is that fed­er­al sup­port won’t last.

I think that we will be busier a month from now than we are today,” he said. Our antic­i­pa­tion is that these ben­e­fits will expire before the eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion [resolves]. If you have a very mod­est rental in Mis­soula, that [$1,200] pays for maybe a month, a month and half.”

To meet increased demand over the last month, the Mis­soula Food Bank and Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter has had to spend more mon­ey, but so far that expense has been matched in donations.

Of all the things we’ve been wor­ry­ing about, buy­ing food has not been one of them,” Brock said. If this goes on for an extend­ed peri­od, that’s a dif­fer­ent scenario.”

But Brock does­n’t want any­one to wor­ry that the pantry is going to run out of food.

There’s no need for peo­ple to wor­ry that we’re not going to have food tomor­row,” he said.

* * *

Michael McCormick, direc­tor of the Liv­ingston Food Resource Cen­ter (LFRC), thinks some of the sup­ply chain prob­lems are symp­to­matic of a food sys­tem that was­n’t very healthy in the first place.

Before the pan­dem­ic, LFRC served 300 to 350 house­holds in an aver­age month. Now, McCormick said, it’s serv­ing almost that num­ber every week.

A lot of the growth we’re see­ing is com­ing from one place,” he said. It’s young fam­i­lies, with kids, who’re recent­ly unemployed.”

The pantry, which has shift­ed to a curb­side-pick­up mod­el, has added a fam­i­ly dis­tri­b­u­tion night” to try to keep up with the new demand, while also meet­ing the needs of the elder­ly par­tic­i­pants in its Senior Sup­per Club, 75% of whom live alone.

When demand changes and shifts ― in this case it just explod­ed ― it sucks all the food out of the sys­tem all the way back to the ware­house,” McCormick said. What we’re see­ing right now is a prod­uct of not hav­ing well-devel­oped local food systems.”

Under Gov. Steve Bullock’s phased reopen­ing plan, restau­rants and schools will be allowed to begin to re-open start­ing May 4 and May 7, respec­tive­ly. But because of the clo­sures, many small and mid-sized local farms have already lost part of their mar­ket, and McCormick hopes food pantries can be part of the solu­tion to that, too.

I want food pantries to be a new mar­ket for local farm­ers,” he said. Basi­cal­ly, I want to invest in our local food systems.” 

And, he said, food pantries need to be think­ing long-term, espe­cial­ly in places like Liv­ingston, where the tourism-depen­dent econ­o­my could be par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive to pan­dem­ic effects.

We’ve got busi­ness­es that are closed now that I don’t think will ever re-open,” he said. You don’t rebuild that in a cou­ple of months.”

Joseph Bulling­ton grew up in the Smith Riv­er water­shed near White Sul­phur Springs, Mon­tana. He lives now in Liv­ingston, where he works as an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist, part-time ranch hand and the edi­tor of Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times.
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