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HELENA — Food security isn’t a new concern for many Montanans, but it’s certainly among the challenges exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
So said panelists at a MTFP-organized virtual forum May 27, “Feeding the Need: Responding to Hunger in Montana.”
The event featured Montana Food Bank Network Chief Policy Officer Lorianne Burhop, Flathead County Agency on Aging Director Lisa Sheppard and Noxon School District Food Services Director Louise Chandler. It was moderated by Montana Free Press editor-in-chief John Adams.
Burhop, whose organization helps route supplies to food banks across Montana, told attendees that before the pandemic hit, about 1 in 10 Montanans, or about 100,000 residents, were living in a food-insecure home. That number represented a gradual decline from a hunger peak following the Great Recession, when an estimated 150,000 Montanans weren’t able to afford consistent access to food.
New estimates, however, indicate the pandemic and its economic fallout has pushed hunger higher than the Great Recession peak, Burhop said.
“In a matter of weeks and a matter of months, we undid all the progress our state had made in recovering from that previous peak,” she said.
Sheppard said that COVID has also disrupted anti-hunger programs focused on seniors in Flathead County, where 30% of the population is 65 or older.
“We’ve known for a really long time that older adults are a higher risk for food insecurity, but also poorer nutrition generally,” she said.
In normal times, the Flathead County Agency on Aging runs a Meals on Wheels food delivery program and offers “social dining” programs at senior centers, Sheppard said. Now, the pandemic has forced the organization to shutter its social dining programs. At the same time, demand for food assistance has ticked up as seniors who can otherwise shop for themselves began avoiding grocery stores out of concern about being exposed to the virus.
“We’ve been getting a lot of calls from people who’ve never thought of themselves as someone who needed help before,” Sheppard said.
At the other end of the age spectrum, the pandemic-driven school shutdown disrupted school breakfast and lunch programs that normally ensure lower-income kids have full stomachs. Chandler’s district, like others, has responded by shifting toward the type of meal programs they usually offer during summer breaks, she said, as well as using school bus routes to distribute meals to families.
“The need is out there, and the schools have stepped up there to meet that need,” Chandler said.
Going forward, panelists agreed, funding is their biggest concern — both the availability of state and federal dollars to meet the increased need, and ensuring that government grant programs provide the flexibility to adapt their services to dynamic demands.
Burhop specifically called for federal action to bolster public food assistance like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which she said provides people with nine meals for every one provided through food banks.
“We as food banks cannot meet the need for food during this crisis, or on an ongoing basis, without continued federal support,” she said.
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