The University of Montana delivered its first donation to the annual Can the Cats food drive last week, providing nearly 7,000 pounds of food packaged during UM President Seth Bodnar’s recent inauguration.

United Way Missoula, the Missoula Food Bank & Community Center and UM hosted the University United Food Friday event during Bodnar’s inauguration in October, and about 350 volunteers packaged over 8,000 meals and 50,000 servings for local families.

The food was donated to the Missoula Food Bank, which co-sponsors the yearly competition between UM and Montana State University.

“What an incredible thing to do with your inauguration,” Aaron Brock, executive director of the Missoula Food Bank & Community Center, said. “So often we see inaugurations be just about the one person, and it’s just awesome that President Bodnar turned around and made it about our community and thought how can we turn this energy and translate it into something that moves the needle for families on the margins in this community.”

The meals will be given to elementary, middle and high school students during holiday breaks and distributed through the organization’s Kids Empower Pack program, which provides meals for about 900 students each weekend.

The meals, which feed a family of six, will start being distributed during Christmas, Brock said. With the Can the Cats food drive in progress, the goal is to raise about 406,000 pounds of food by Nov. 17.

It’s off to a good start, he said.

“This is the first year something like this event with the university and United Way has ever happened, so you bet. It’s a bump right at the beginning of Can the Cats. It’s new and unique and our goal is higher than it’s ever been before,” Brock said.

Food drives and donations are important, he said. At an ASUM meeting last week, Brock talked about the food drive and the services his organization provides. In 2017, about 25,344 individuals used the Missoula Food Bank, or 1 in 5 people who live in Missoula County.

About 40 percent used the facility one time, while 70 percent visited three times or fewer.

“So what that paints is this picture of families that are on a tight budget, but they’re making it most of the time,” Brock said during the meeting. “Then there is some event that happens. There’s a short-term job loss, there’s an injury or an illness. They walk through our doors, there’s food on the table, and they dig themselves out of that hole.”

In a video posted on the Missoula Food Bank’s Facebook page, Bodnar, Brock and United Way of Missoula County board president Dwight Schulte expressed their support for families and thanked the sponsors and organizations that helped with the University United Food Friday event.

“To have engaged over 350 people from the university, in terms of students, staff, faculty members as well as community members [and] business leaders from around the Missoula community, was a very exciting and perfect example of the service ethic that runs in the heart of our community,” Bodnar said.

Information about the Can the Cats food drive and how to donate can be found here. The event is part of Gris-Cat week, leading up to Saturday's football game in Missoula.