Missoula Food Bank provides meals for children over winter break

Thomas King, 14 months, clings to his mother Kristina King between spurts of play at EmPower Place children’s space in the Missoula Food Bank. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

As some families struggle to fill their cupboards over winter break, the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center has them covered.

“So many children in our community really rely on getting a healthy breakfast and lunch at school,” said operations director Kelli Hess. “During long breaks, it can be hard for families who are already struggling with food insecurity to fill that meal gap.”

Breakfast, lunch and supper will be available at EmPower Place, a kid-oriented space and children’s on-site learning center at the Food Bank on Wyoming Street.

The USDA reimburses the center for the winter break meals, specifically for children 18 and younger, said Aaron Brock, executive director. 

“But our culture is that we don’t turn anyone away,” he added, should family members accompany children to the center. “This is a little bit more flexible. It’s an open lunch model.”

Also making the rounds in various neighborhoods will be the center’s mobile meal bus, set up like an ice cream truck. The driver and helpers play a song as they drive around the neighborhoods. The music helps eliminate any stigma food-insecure families may have during the holidays.

“The mobile meal bus is a continuing of our Kids’ Table program and after-school snacks,” he said.

“Our mobile meal bus has been serving lunches during school breaks at Futura and Travois for two summers now,” said Hess. “It makes a huge difference for these families, and we love seeing the kids run out to grab a fun meal. We try to make it fun, so kids don’t feel shame in grabbing a good meal from us.”

Childhood hunger programs, among other service programs, grew in 2019. The center experienced another record-setting year, as it has already provided more services from its emergency food pantry store than in 2018. 

So far, in 2019, nearly 1,000 more unique households have visited the Missoula Food Bank compared to all of 2018, said organizers. The center has reached 8,803 different homes in Missoula County so far this year.

In 2018, the center helped 26,314 different people — or one in five people living in Missoula County.

The center’s annual food drive runs simultaneously – until Dec. 31. Brock said his staff has raised $150,000 and nearly 40,000 pounds of food so far, but lags behind in reaching its goals. 

Still, Brock aims to raise $250,000 total, plus collect 50,000 pounds of food by year’s end.

“I’m thinking we’ll make it, but we need our community to step up,” he said. 

The annual Holiday Drive, in its 34th year, remains the organization’s largest, most important fundraiser.

The Holiday Drive supports the Food Bank’s store, which has helped more than 26,000 different people this year, plus ancillary programs like Kids EmPower Pack, a weekend nutrition program for children who experience chronic hunger while away from school. 

Kids EmPower Pack supports 1,050 children county-wide each weekend, ranging from preschool to high school. 

The drive also supports the Food Bank’s Food Rescue work, helping to keep more than one million pounds of good, perishable food out of the landfill and put to good use. 

Donations can be made to Missoula Food Bank and Community Center in person or by mail at 1720 Wyoming Street, Missoula, MT 59801, or online at missoulafoodbank.org.

Contact Business Reporter Renata Birkenbuel at 406-565-0013 and renatab@missoulacurrent.com.

The kids’ meals schedule at EmPower Place at the center, 1720 Wyoming St., looks like this from Dec. 23 through Jan. 3: 

  • Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
  • Monday-Thursday, 2:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. 
  • The center is closed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day

The center will also serve weekday lunches, excluding holidays, in the following neighborhoods:

  • Council Groves Apartments from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m
  • Travois Village Mobile Home Park from 11:30 a.m. to 12 p.m.
  • Futura Mobile Home Park from 12:15 p.m. to 12:45 p.m.