By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
Volunteers clad in aprons and gloves began stocking the shelves at the Missoula Food Bank early Tuesday morning, working to beat the 10 o’clock hour, when the organization opened the doors of its new facility for the very first time.
The morning crowd arrived on schedule, breezing through the facility’s market-like atmosphere to gather their essential goods. And those who came were pleasantly surprised by the changes.
“I’ve been coming to the Food Bank for eight years, and this is absolutely wonderful,” said Dori Walker, one of the morning’s first clients. “I would never be able to make ends meet without the Food Bank. It’s been a lifesaver for me.”
As Walker navigated aisles stocked with bread, rice and frozen meat, Executive Director Aaron Brock raced to ensure the pantry’s grand opening went off without a hitch.
Compared to the old facility on Third Street, the new pantry on Wyoming Street navigates more like a grocery store than a warehouse – one capable of serving a city where nearly 20 percent of the population relies upon the Food Bank to make ends meet.
“I’m sure it’s going to morph as we live in this space,” Brock said. “It’s exciting to reach this point, but this isn’t a finish line – it’s the starting line.”
Opening the 21,000-square-foot facility was years in the making, dating back to a series of design charrettes held nearly three years ago. The resulting vision was grand, though the Food Bank’s board of directors never balked, nor did the organization’s community partners.
Construction began in late 2015 after a successful fundraising campaign, an effort that included $6.5 million in New Market Tax Credits from the Montana & Idaho Community Development Corporation. The support has left the Food Bank with zero mortgage payments.
“We brought this vision to our key donors and heard overwhelmingly right out of the gate that they were inspired by a vision that is uplifting and dignified,” Brock said. “The key donors who were really going to make this a reality were in our corner with this vision.”
That vision resulted in a facility like few others in Montana. It also compiled a long list of partnerships unique to organizations that fight food insecurity in cities across the country.
Among the amenities are a well-stocked learning kitchen (the Bill and Rosemary Gallagher Learning Kitchen), where students from the Missoula College culinary arts program will teach classes on cooking and nutrition.
It also includes an attached learning center for children, giving them a place to play and learn while their parents shop for food. Dubbed the EmPower Place, the center offers intentional programming in partnership with the Missoula Public Library, Children’s Museum Missoula and the spectrUM Discovery Area.
Early Tuesday, several children had already taken to the center, sending balls through something of a wall-sized pinball machine. The clamor of shopping carts rang from the adjoining room.
“The challenge and the exciting part is, how do we maximize this (kitchen) space, or that EmPower Place?” Brock said. “Now that we have this incredible asset, our challenge is, how do we respond better to community needs than we ever have in the past, and how do we offer that return on community investment.”
Despite the accoutrements offered in the new facility, the Food Bank’s mission continues to focus on feeding the city’s needy, and intercepting challenges before they grow into something more. Last year, the organization served more than 21,000 people, or nearly one in five Missoula residents – up 14 percent over the prior year.
The organization also reported a 52 percent increase in services offered through its array of programming. At the same time, its volunteer force grew 130 percent in 2016.
“People are visiting us before they see other services,” Brock said. “Food is a more flexible budget item, and people will walk though our doors before they experience homelessness. Not only do we provide the food, but we also connect people to the resources that help them arrest their slide.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org