Credit: Aaron Doucett

Like many organizations in Montana, the state’s largest food bank has struggled with labor shortages, making it difficult to get a precise count of people using its services, said Billings Food Bank CEO Sheryle Shandy. Anecdotally, though, she said she’s noticed the organization’s clientele has shifted since the pandemic’s start.

Before COVID-19, Billings Food Bank’s clients were roughly evenly divided into three age groups: 18 and younger, between 19 and 59, and 60 and older. Since the pandemic’s start, the food bank has served more people in that middle category, Shandy said.

“We’re seeing a whole bunch more of the middle group — people who are older but have families and have not had to ask for help [before],” she said. “It’s heart-wrenching to see people that have raised their kids, have supported themselves, have put their kids through college and then [the pandemic] hit.”

Shandy said the Billings Food Bank tried to develop programs to meet people where they are, both physically and metaphorically. It developed programs such as Farm to Trunk, which offered a COVID-safe distribution model that reduced barriers that may have kept some people from seeking the pantry’s support. Under that model, the food bank distributed about 100 pounds of pantry staples to tens of thousands of families in Billings and outlying areas over the course of 2020. It also kept food from going to waste amidst supply chain disruptions that led to gluts of items such as potatoes and milk

Those are  success stories she’s proud of, and something the pantry would consider revisiting in the future, she said.

“It was amazing. We pushed through so much food,” she said. “We would actually love to do [Food to Trunk] again. … It’s so efficient.”

Heading into the second pandemic Thanksgiving, the Billings Food Bank continues to deliver some holiday programs differently than in a normal year. However, Shandy said many of the nonprofit’s most popular events and programs are as strong as ever. Those include a one-day turkey- and fundraising-drive and a Thanksgiving meal that draws upon the generosity and expertise of local chefs. Both have more than 20-year histories.

Last week the Billings Food Bank partnered with local broadcasting station Q2 in “Turkey Tuesday,” which netted upward of $80,000 in cash donations and some 4,000 turkeys. Many of the donated turkeys went into food boxes to Billings Food Bank clients. On Thanksgiving Day, Billings Food Bank volunteers plan to deliver hot meals to people’s homes and offer a pick-up option at the organization’s downtown Billings location. (As was the case last Thanksgiving, they won’t have a dine-in option due to COVID-19 precautions.)

“[Community support] has enabled us to keep up with this demand — and do more than keep up with it, to [develop] new ways to deliver programming.”

Livingston Food Resource Center Executive Director Michael McCormick

Although the sign-up is closed for delivered meals, Shandy encouraged people to call the food bank at (406) 259-2856 if they’d like to pick up a hot Thanksgiving meal or learn more about donation or volunteering opportunities. Through the end of the month, Town Pump will match up to $1 million in cash donations to the Billings Food Bank, she added.

“We’re in a generous state,” Shandy said. “We may not always have time to acknowledge the support [we receive], but we know you’re there, and we’re all in it together.”

A ‘MORE EFFECTIVE MORE EFFICIENT ORGANIZATION’

At a smaller food pantry about 120 miles west of Billings, there’s no question the pandemic has led to an increase in demand, but Livingston Food Resource Center Executive Director Michael McCormick said he’s proud of the way the center’s staff and volunteers have adapted to meet those needs. As a result, he said, LFRC has been able to expand its outreach and rethink its program delivery.

“The whole pandemic experience has made us a more effective, more efficient organization,” he said. “If there’s any good news in the whole thing, that’s it.”

Those adaptations include a pop-up food pantry that LFRC took to Clyde Park in a refrigerated box truck, an online Kids Cooking Camp that has allowed LFRC to deliver cooking and nutrition lessons to kids as far away as Cooke City, and an expansion to its supper club program. Prior to COVID-19 the supper club program, a dinner delivery service, was offered almost exclusively to low-income senior citizens in the area. It’s since expanded to include individuals recovering from recent hospital stays and people quarantining due to COVID infection or exposure.

McCormick said that while he’s grateful the community’s need isn’t as high as it once was (in the early days of the pandemic, LFRC’s food delivery went up by 300% with an especially sharp increase in deliveries to families with young children) he’s glad for these adaptations, and he said he anticipates the resulting staffing and facility adjustments will allow LFRC to continue serving a larger swath of the county once the pandemic is over.

Last week, LFRC distributed approximately 350 Thanksgiving meal kits — which is about on par with last year, and an increase from 2019 levels, he said. Those food bags were complete with gravy made from organic, locally-sourced ingredients and cranberry sauce made with organic Washington cranberries.

McCormick said this holiday season he’s grateful for “community support, in capital letters, about 24-point font and with lots of exclamation points after it.”

“That’s really the key,” he said. “That’s what has enabled us to keep up with this demand — and do more than keep up with it, to [develop] new ways to deliver programming.”

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Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.