Colorful cans and boxes of groceries lined the shelves of the pantry at Arlee Community Development Corporation on a summer morning. Supply workers, including program manager Donna Mollica, had replenished their supplies the day before in preparation for a new week of distribution.
Though the shelves were full that morning, Mollica says they don’t stay that way for long these days. Arlee’s pantry typically stocks enough groceries for 30 families a week. But demand doubled in April.
“So we got caught by surprise and ran out of food,” says Mollica.
Mollica says the pantry was taken by surprise by the flood.
“It was really clear that it was a reaction to inflation. We’ve had people who have never used a pantry before.”
Mollica says many Jocko Valley families commute to work, and Montana gas prices have risen fall slower than in other states. Add to that rising rents and food prices, and Arlee’s pantry found itself in the center of a perfect storm.
The pantry isn’t the only one seeing an increased demand for food aid. The Missoula Food Bank told MTPR that the first few months of 2022 were the busiest on record. Flathead Food Bank customers are up a third this spring, with first-time pantry users accounting for much of the increase.
Gayle Carlson is CEO of the Montana Food Bank Network.
“What we’ve heard from our agencies over the last few months are some pretty dramatic increases,” she says.
As emergency funding and pandemic-era donations dwindle and food and gas prices soar, food kitchen workers say they are dealing with a unique set of challenges.
Carlson has run the state food banks network for nine years and says rural areas and communities that depend on retail, the service industry and seasonal workers are particularly struggling to afford groceries today because wages have not risen in line with spending are.
Despite the challenges, Carlson says she’s not overly concerned about the future of the Montana food banks.
“I think if there’s ever a group of organizations that’s resilient, it’s pantries because they’ve figured out how to make the most of what little they have,” says Carlson.
Montana Pantries are looking for solutions to keep up with the increasing demand.
The Montana Food Bank Network says it is developing a proposal for unique state legislation to support pantries and local farmers.
The Livingston Food Resource Center is working with Hopa Mountain, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, and other organizations to develop “food hubs” — networks of pantries across the state that share access to locally grown foods, programs and other resources .
Michael McCormick recently retired from a 12-year tenure as head of the Livingston Food Resource Center and says pantries should work to address what he called the root cause of food insecurity: poverty.
“Food supplies have a real chance of not being that invisible support for those in need — each of them has an opportunity to step up and really make a difference in their community,” says McCormick.
And back in Arlee, Donna Mollica and former Confederate Salish and Kootenai tribal chief Shelly Fyant work on the Pantry’s “Food Sovereignty” initiative – teaching Jocko Valley residents how to grow and cook using local foods and indigenous techniques . Fyant said she first heard the term at a conference when she was a member of the CSKT Council.
“And one of the things I heard at that meeting was, ‘A nation that can’t support itself isn’t really sovereign,'” says Fyant. “And coming from a sovereign nation, I’ve thought long and hard about it.”
The Arlee Pantry also plans to deploy a new food dehydrator to begin providing easy-to-prepare meals to local families, and Fyant is developing programs to teach entrepreneurship skills to Jocko Valley’s youth. Mollica and Fyant say they’ve raised enough grants and donations to get by in 2023, but a further surge in demand or prices could derail those plans.
Mollica says the pantry’s future isn’t keeping her awake despite the headache.
“If we put our minds and hearts together and keep doing the good work that we are doing, the money we need will come.”