Missoula Food Bank puts the ‘C’ back in ‘community’ with inclusive mission

Taking a break in the volunteer break room of the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center are, from left to right, volunteer assistant Ashley Schleicher, volunteer Mark Wheaton and executive director Aaron Brock. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

Unique among traditional food banks, the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center has ardently put the “C” back in community since moving into its new building on Wyoming Street 18 months ago.

The longer name can be a mouthful, but it’s meant to convey a hearty welcome to all – no matter income level or station in life – in the form of an “open meals” approach.

Each week, executive director Aaron Brock, a staff of 16 and an average of 500 volunteers have distributed nearly 1.8 million pounds of food in 2018. But for the past year and a half, the food bank also has expanded its offerings to include more community services.

High on the list is a sleek, bright kitchen, a community conference center and a 1,160-square-foot, T-shaped room for a future branch of Partnership Health Center.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on,” said Brock. “Really, the community center genesis comes out of meeting our community’s needs in a broader way while at the same time reducing the stigma of people walking through our doors to get food resources.”

Brock said the food bank is progressive in its expanded mission: to help reduce the stigma of food poverty, to lend more inclusiveness to the old food bank model by welcoming all who walk through the doors and to make a variety of activities accessible to everyone in town and surrounding areas. 

It’s a matter of perception, the food bank’s board of directors recognized about two years ago. 

“People will walk into a community center,” Brock added. “There are people who experience barriers of guilt, shame and pride when walking into a food bank. Part of our motivation was intentional rebranding and broadening of what we’re offering so as to make the core thing we’re offering – basic nutrition for families who need it – more accessible. I think we’ve done that.” 

Other than a new sign on the outside of the beautiful building at 1720 Wyoming St., the nonprofit has transformed itself into a true-blue community center that, upon entering, reminds a visitor of a hectic, happy Santa’s workshop. Volunteers busily fill commercial refrigerators and coolers, sort donated cans and dry foods, or kindly direct newbies learning the system. 

On the main floor, cheerful, attentive retirees man the front desk and phone lines, directing visitors not only to the adjacent clean, sparkling, roomy food bank – but also to other amenities offered to Missoula at large.

Toddlers play with toys in a sandbox in the kid-friendly EmPower Place in the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center as their mothers, adult volunteers, staff and SpectrUM Discovery Area resident scientist Amanda Duley supervise. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

Wind through the maze of a volunteer break room, administrative offices and back warehouse food storage areas, then enter EmPower Place, an enticing kids’ space aimed to keep youngsters and pre-teens active and engaged.

The community center partners with the University of Montana SpectrUM Discovery Area and the Missoula Public Library to offer a free family learning center in EmPower Place. 

“We are a pretty unique model in teaching literacy and STEM,” said Brock. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. 

Amanda Duley, resident SpectrUM staff scientist and expert, describes the partnership succinctly, like knocking two atoms together to create something bigger:

“Intended to feed both bodies and minds, EmPower Place is one part science center, one part library, and one part meal site,” Duley wrote. “By operating inside a food bank, EmPower Place lowers barriers to entry and meets children and families where they already gather.

“SpectrUM contributes to this project with inclusive science programs and exhibits, sparking interest in science for thousands of visitors, and making shopping at the food bank a fun and enriching experience for families.”

Volunteer Diana Clark at work in the food bank’s kitchen. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

The main floor sports a commercial kitchen, where die-hard volunteers like Diana Clark make three-course Swedish meatball dinners to freeze and stock in the food bank.

Clark has volunteered for 10 years, staying true to a 30-year family tradition of volunteering at the food bank. 

“I love the fact that we’re supplying food to so many people instead of it going to the landfill,” said Clark. 

On the second floor, beyond bright administrative offices, is a modern Learning Kitchen and dining area with plenty of light and artistic woodwork. Cooking classes are popular, free and open to all. 

“Anyone can sign up for the classes,” said Jamie Breidenbach, building program manager. Register at the Lifelong Learning Center of Missoula County Public Schools at www.missoulaclasses.com

“It has created its own little community with people making new friends,” added Breidenbach. “People are really wonderful and everybody is so helpful in cleaning up after cooking class.”

Making British scones in the Learning Kitchen of the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center are, from left to right in the foreground, Kristin Freeman, Carel Schneider and Nancy Shrader. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

Breidenbach also partners with MCPS and the MSU Extension Office, too, in teaching students from Franklin, Hawthorne and C.S. Porter schools how to cook nutritional foods at the center. 

“I like the notion of teaching people how to make healthy meals in classes, instead of making the fast food stuff,” added Clark. 

The kitchen opened in May 2017. Volunteer cooking instructors like Judith Billingslea-Berthoud fills a niche, as she brings 18 years of personal catering experience in Baltimore, Maryland, to Missoula.

On the day she taught learners how to concoct a British-inspired afternoon tea with homemade scones, she said she teaches “a good mixture” of ages and demographics.

In 2018, the community center handed out 35 percent more EmPower Packs compared to 2017. That means 37,891 kids received two lunches, two hearty snacks and more in weekend food packs to tide them over compared to 27,971 the previous year.

“The packs are good nutrition, not too heavy and kid-friendly,” said Brock. 

Kids can study, plan, learn and interact in the EmPower Place, where staff and volunteer adults are always present. 

But those number increases barely scratch the surface of what the community center has accomplished since it rebranded itself. The year 2018 was an astounding year in growth, as comparison totals show the following program increases across the board compared to 2017:

  • ROOTS homebound senior boxes delivered: up 23 percent to 7,463
  • Customers served in Lolo and Potomac: up 6 percent to 1,440
  • Kids Table Summer meals provided: up 20 percent to 38,696
  • Kids Table After-School meals served: up 22 percent to 70,708
  • Thanksgiving meals provided: up 14 percent to 7,969
  • Total number of volunteers: up 22 percent to 8,892
  • Total number of volunteer hours: up 33 percent to 47,684
  • Number of Learning Kitchen participants: up 49 percent to 894
  • EmPower Place services for families: up 21 percent to 10,854

However, the main reason families stop by the building is a lack of affordable housing, as 46 percent of their monthly income goes to a mortgage or rent.

Aaron Brock is executive director of the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

Nearly 8,000 different household and 26,2453 individuals were served in the store. 

The average food store customer groups are adults, age 18 to 55 at 55 percent. Children under age 18 are next at 33 percent and seniors comprise the balance at 12 percent.

While Brock admits the best-case scenario would be for the food bank to go out of business – meaning that no one struggles with food insecurity – he said food banks “continue to be a growth industry.” 

But for sure, Missoula leads the charge with its innovative, inclusive community-inspired spaces and ongoing activities that draw folks from all walks of life. 

Next winter, construction on the Partnership Health Center will start.

“We continue to be a one-stop shop,” added Brock. “Everything we’re doing, people show up for.”