Hunger still a growth industry in Missoula

Food Bank
Joe Lanza, a one-time client at the Missoula Food Bank, is now a dedicated volunteer. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

It’s Thursday morning and the doors to the Missoula Food Bank have just opened. Already the line is long and it’s standing room only in the service area, where clients sip coffee while awaiting their chance to fill a basket with food enough to get them through the week.

Anymore, it’s like this on any given day.

“On a busy day, there can be an hour-long wait,” said Aaron Brock, the Missoula Food Bank’s executive director. “When you talk about our mission, it really is to eliminate hunger in our community. This is just the state of reality today.”

The Missoula Food Bank provided 119,000 total services in 2015 and distributed 1.5 million pounds of food. The effort represents a sharp uptick in need, one that Brock fears may be untenable if the trends don’t change down the road.

Brock shared his concerns this week with the City Council’s Committee of the Whole, where he described hunger in Missoula as a growth industry and asked the city’s policy makers to consider the needs as they make decisions moving forward.

He reiterated those needs on Thursday, and said the organization’s new facility on Wyoming Street can’t open soon enough.

“When we ask people who come in what most influenced their visit, 52 percent identified housing and utility costs as being the primary reason,” Brock said. “When I look around Missoula and see the rents and the prices of houses available for first-time homebuyers, it’s not an inexpensive place to live.”

Last year, 16.5 percent of Missoula County’s 112,000 people were living in categorical poverty. Roughly 14 percent of the county, or more than 15,000 people, were enrolled in SNAP – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

While the Food Bank served more than 18,000 unique individuals at its current location, Brock said, nearly 39 percent of them turned to the pantry just one time, and more than 42 percent of them were employed.

Brock believes the figures suggest that many are stretched thin when making ends meet from month to month.

“In most cases, it’s people who are more like us than the visibly homeless,” Brock said “These people have houses and jobs, and there’s some crisis that breaks an already tight budget. Maybe there’s some pockets where wages have kept up, but we see a people where wages have not kept pace.”

Loss of employment, low wages and high housing costs impact the region’s children, which represent a startling 35 percent of the Food Bank’s patrons. Of the county’s 21,000 youth, roughly 20 percent are living in households at or below the poverty rate.

The Food Bank runs a number of programs to combat hunger among children, and that consumes precious resources. Kids Table – a summertime nutrition program – served 16,679 children a healthy and nutritious lunch last year. The Food Bank continues to provide EmPower packs on Friday’s to ensure hungry children have something to eat over the weekend when school is not in session.

“It’s a package of nutritious and kid-friendly food we prepare in advance and that teachers and resource counselors distribute in a clandestine way so the kids aren’t called up to get their package,” Brock said. “They are kids identified by counselors as showing up on Monday mornings showing signs of hunger.”

While the Food Bank expends a large portion of its resources toward children and families, it’s the area’s senior population that represents the area’s fastest growing demographic.

In 2014, seniors represented just 10 percent of the Food Bank’s clientele, but that number grew to 14 percent last year. Brock was uncertain if the increase was a reflection of the region’s aging population or growing need.

“We talk about all these numbers, and in every case, they’re numbers that are growing,” Brock said. “It’s awesome that our community has donated its time, its money and food so every one of the people who walk through the door get what they need, but I wish we weren’t a growth industry.”

On a given day, Brock said, more than 100 clients walk though the Food Bank’s doors. It’s pantry on Third Street is old and crowded, at times posing challenges to staff and volunteers like Ruth Schaub and Joe Lanza who donate time to ensure the city’s hungry get what they need.

“I was on the other side as a client years ago,” Lanza said. “I wanted to give back and I came in with an open mind. One day a week became two days a week and that became three days a week. It’s just the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Times weren’t easy when Lanza was a Food Bank customer. He described it as degrading, suggesting he had failed at some point in life. Having kids made the request for assistance even tougher.

Food Bank2
An architectural rendering of the Missoula Food Bank’s new facility planned for Wyoming Street.

“The kids didn’t mind it so much, but I did a little bit,” he said. “Now, I can make a positive change, especially when the new place opens where we have more interaction with the clients and the environment. We’re working the best we can with what we have now, but we’ll be a lot better when we get in there.”

Last year, the Food Bank purchased a new lot on Wyoming Street on the west side of the city. Brock believes the new location will better service the pantry’s clients and allow the organization to conduct better community outreach, including a partnership with local food growers and after-school programs with SpectrUM Discovery Center.

Still, Brock said, the organization must raise the funding and consider future needs.

“The number of visits to the Missoula Food Bank have doubled over the last 10 years,” Brock said. “When we look at a new facility, you have to ask, are we building it for today’s needs or the needs we’ll see in 10 to 20 years. How do we plan for growth, and how do we live within our means?”

The organization has been quietly seeking donors to help fund the new $5.5 million facility. Brock said the Food Bank has raised about 65 percent of what it needs. It plans to sell its current property on Third Street and place the equity into the new facility.

It’s also pursuing New Market Tax Credits, and it received a small grant from the city through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields process to clean the new site of any industrial contaminants. The site recently received a clean scorecard.

“At the end of the day, that leaves us with $3.2 million locally,” Brock said. “We’ve raised about $2.2 million. Our focus right now is to continue with the quiet phase of our campaign, with a number of us at the Food Bank going out into the community and asking friends and supporters to make larger gifts.”

Come March, Brock said, the organization will launch the public phase of its fundraising efforts. If it can raise enough capital, it plans to break ground at its new location in April.

“There’s a lot of things it will do, but the most important is that it will remove the barriers to the service we have today,” Brock said. “We don’t have the infrastructure today to meet the needs of the numbers we’re seeing. Our lack of infrastructure is a true barrier.”