Many Montanans would have gone hungry in the early days of the COVID-19 shutdown if it weren’t for the Montana Food Bank Network. Similarly, the Food Bank Network would have struggled to fulfill its mission if not for some hard work, a few timely grants and the generosity of others.

Driving back to Helena Tuesday after observing drive-through COVID-19 testing in Superior, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney stopped in at the Montana Food Bank Network to see how the staff was keeping up with Montana’s needs. Entering the warehouse area, Cooney was pleased to see many of the pallets and shelves were more full than a few months ago.

It was hard to tell, he told Montana Food Bank Network CEO Gayle Carlson, but he was smiling behind his facemask. Carlson said her organization had had to adjust to a lot of changes over the past three months, but they were managing to keep the food flowing to their 380 partners across the state.

“It is an interesting time,” Carlson said. “It’s magnified the challenges we have and some of the flaws that we have in our system, but it’s also magnified the generosity.”

When Montana shut down along with the rest of the country in mid-March, much changed at the MFBN. Staff was sent home, and volunteers were told not to come to work to avoid spreading disease. Demand for food picked up as Montanans started to lose jobs, and children no longer attended school so they couldn’t benefit from school lunches.

But while food was flying out of the warehouse, it was being replaced in fits and starts or not at all as the national food distribution system became tangled.

“We’re used to dealing with disasters, but they’re usually pretty isolated disasters,” Carlson said. “But this was pretty unique in that everybody was hit by it. So not knowing what we were going to be facing, the agencies were amazing. Overnight, they just shifted gears and figured it out.”

Right off the bat, the MFBN received $1.3 million in donations from corporate and foundation sources, including Feeding America, a national network of food banks.

But it didn’t take long for that to dwindle in March, as food banks and pantries saw the number of households needing food almost double from a year ago. According to MFBN numbers, almost 27,000 households took advantage of food banks this March, compared to 15,650 a year ago.

Carlson said additional groups asked to join the network of 165 food banks and pantries, but she had to turn them away. Still, the MFBN is sending mobile food pantries around the state for at least the next couple months to try to decrease that need.

“We already have a waiting list, and we had to stop taking any new people into the waitlist because we know we’re going to get hit for a long time,” Carlson said.

Fortunately, the MFBN also received a $50,000 emergency grant from Share Our Strength, a nonprofit organization focused on ending world hunger.

More recently, the MFBN received another $50,000 Food Bank and Food Pantry grant from Montana’s share of the $1.25 billion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

Carlson said each influx of money came just in time to help her staff schedule the deliveries of more food while juggling the complexities of timing and availability. To offset that, the MFBN bought another truck to bring its fleet size to three.

“We’ve been buying food, and some of it is still not here,” Carlson said. “Some of it won’t arrive until September. We’re sending drivers out of state to pick up a lot of supplies. The delays will be a struggle for a while.”

Another challenge is cost because food prices are rising. The unit price for peanut butter before COVID-19 appeared was $1.51 and now it’s $2.89, Carlson said. Fortunately, the grocery stores are being resupplied more regularly, so the grocery rescue program is bringing in more food.

“We don’t have enough food or too much, depending on which ways the numbers swing at the local pantries,” said Stephanie Staley, MFBN chief programs officer.

One thing they don’t have too much of is meat, namely beef or pork. That’s because some ranchers have had to slaughter and waste their animals, unable to sell them, because a number of processing plants around the region have closed due to coronavirus outbreaks.

And while Montanans regularly take their wild game to processors for butchering and packaging – some of which ends up at food banks – those same processors can’t butcher cows or pigs for food banks due to U.S. Department of Agriculture certification requirements and restrictions.

“The one negative of all this is we realized how broken our food system is,” Carlson said. “We had a lot of ranchers that were wanting to donate beef and pork but no place to process it. We all knew it. It’s just that (COVID-19) amplified it.”

The state has a COVID-19 program that allows meat packers to expand their operations to address local markets, but they run into USDA barriers. Cooney said the Bullock administration asked the USDA to relax its meat processing restrictions, at least temporarily. But Gov. Steve Bullock recently received a letter from the Secretary of Agriculture, saying, “We hear you, but there’s nothing we’re going to do about it,” Cooney said.

Congress might be able to make a few changes, but it’s unlikely anything would be passed before the year is over, Cooney said.

“That’s something that we’re going to continue to work on because it makes no sense,” Cooney said. “There’s a need out there. And the same is true with milk. We need to upgrade that whole system and the whole structure. Or at least get us USDA inspectors so that they can become certified and get them to our little meatpackers.”

Fortunately, Montana has other sources of meat. Carlson said the MFBN recently received 30,000 pounds of bison from the American Prairie Reserve, which had no problem processing the meat.

In the meantime, the MFBN is expanding its operation in an effort to meet the increasing need. In addition to the new truck, MFBN just closed on a 7-acre parcel up the street from their property by the Missoula Airport.

“We’re planning on moving in in the fall,” Carlson said. “Part of me was a little leery about that. But the other half of it is if there’s ever a time when we can demonstrate the need, it’s now.”