Missoula commissioners, Montana Food Bank Network look to meet growing need

The Montana Food Bank Network provided 11 million pounds of food to community pantries and programs statewide in 2017. (Courtesy photo)

Missoula County commissioners gave the Montana Food Bank Network a boost Thursday, signing a grant application that would help the organization visualize what it needs to serve Montanans’ ever-growing food security needs.

The network provides food for community pantries and programs in 42 of Montana’s 56 counties, and anticipates moving into others in the years to come.

“Our facility has pretty much been at the maximum of its demand for a few years now, so we’re getting to the point where we can’t hire staff anymore. We don’t have any more administrative space,” Gayle Carlson, chief executive officer of the Montana Food Bank Network, said in an interview. “Our warehouse has been at maximum capacity consistently now for a couple of years, and we don’t see that slowing down.”

Thus Thursday’s action in Missoula, where commissioners signed a Community Development Block Grant application to the Montana Department of Commerce.

If approved, the grant will provide $22,500 to fund a preliminary architectural report. The network will add another $7,500 its own funds.

“What we’ll be looking for out of that report is based on our growth for the next few years, what kind of facility we will need and really whether it’s a matter of staying in the facility that we’re at now and possibly branching,” Carlson said. “This report will provide us with all kinds of options for the [Montana Food Bank Network] board to decide which direction we want to go from there.”

Sindie Kennedy, the county’s grants administrator, said the architectural report will allow Carlson and others with the network to plan for the future.

“The architects will explore options and that includes coming up with some cost estimates, and that kind of helps the board decide once they get that report, what’s the next steps in terms of moving forward,” she said.

Funding for the report will come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Because of backlog on the federal level, the next funding cycle is this fall.

The architectural report will take about a year to complete.

Carlson said the expansion is needed, as the frequency of Montanans using pantries – the network’s partner agencies – has increased, and more organizations need help.

“As far as quantity is concerned, I think right now we’re kind of maxing out on what we can do,” she said. “I think if we were to be looking at three to five years in the future, yes, we probably would not be able to provide the quantities that they will need, but so far we haven’t gotten to that point where we can’t serve our agencies.”

Half of the Food Bank Network’s existing 26,000-square-foot facility in Missoula is its warehouse, which serves 140 partner agencies and provided over 11 million pounds of food during 2017.

With demand growing each year, the network hasn’t been able to provide non-food items for a couple of years, using the warehouse space only for staples like pasta, rice, beans, frozen meats, canned goods and produce.

“We’ve also had to decide to not go with non-food items, so any paper products, diapers, things like that, we just don’t have the space to be able to do that so we’ve had to stick with primarily food items,” Carlson said.

In the next couple of years, the network plans to add more partners, expanding into more counties. And Carlson expects an increase in the frequency of residents who use pantries associated with the Montana Food Bank Network.

“We know we have counties that are currently not being served or are really underserved, so we’re always exploring more relationships with potential partners to establish new programs with partner agencies,” she said. “The agencies we currently have, they’re always growing.”

Outside factors like trying to afford housing and unemployment also affect the amount of food needed in pantries, which includes the city of Missoula.

Serving senior centers and schools, the network provides food to backpack programs at more than 116 sites, up from 23 sites five years ago.

“We always go back to the fact that our state is pretty low in wages and so there’s a lot areas where they’re underemployed,” Carlson said. “[there’s] seasonal employment, so the services that a lot of the pantries are providing are not necessarily to the same families every single month. They are seeing more and more utilizing their services than before.”