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Munch Machine: New Billings summer program is a hit with hungry kids

Munch Machine
Posted at 9:25 AM, Jun 17, 2024

BILLINGS — Billings Education Foundation's new summer food program on wheels to combat food insecurity, the Munch Machine, began last week and helped to feed over 250 children in the community, and will continue to see numbers grow. The program is a van that delivers meals and snacks to families in need.

In School District 2, over 1,000 students benefit from meal programs and pantries for school lunches. But when the summer starts, these programs are not available. This is an issue the foundation realized and wanted to create a solution.

“The mobile food program, or the Munch Machine, has been a dream and vision of the foundation for several years after continuously getting asked the question of, 'What happens to these students that are on our backpack meals programs during the summer months?' and we didn’t have a great answer for them," said Shelley Pierce, the foundation's development and community relations manager.

Families could apply online, and it did not take long for the outpouring of applications to indicate how essential this program would become.

“When the applications kept coming in towards the end of the school year we were like, 'Okay, gosh we are going to do this,' and there’s a need obviously that’s not being met,” said Pierce.

Shelley Pierce
Shelley Pierce is the foundation's development and community relations manager and says they've seen an outpouring of applications for the summer program.

The van was unveiled on June 7 and began running on June 12. Throughout the summer, they will deliver food to over 250 families in need across the city each week, Monday through Thursday. After opening, they saw numbers rise, and expect to keep seeing them grow.

“For next week we’re already pushing 275 so we’ve already seen an increase from this week to next. When we started the program, we were like, oh we might get 200, we had no idea what to expect,” said Pierce.

Nikki Dolan and Emma Bartel both work for the foundation and assist with the operation of the Munch Machine. Together, they helped to deliver bags of food to anywhere from 60-80 families a day.

Nikki Dolan and Emma Bartel
Nikki Dolan (left) and Emma Bartel (right) help drive the Munch Machine and deliver food to children

The bags are filled with all sorts of food, from bread and snacks, to even refrigerated items like fresh fruit and yogurt. Each one is packed carefully, like putting the bread on top to ensure it will not be crushed while being transported in the van.

“We do have to pack them well, so they fit on there and things don’t get squished because you know, no one wants a broken cookie,” said Bartel.

They will also help deliver hygiene products and eventually will include books. Despite having some minor hiccups, like copying down an address incorrectly, they say they are happy with how the program ran in its first week and have also seen great reactions from everyone who sees the colorful van.

“This is our first week, so it’s definitely been a learning experience, but Emma and I are really wanting to do this for the kids and (we) are excited,” said Dolan.

Munch Machine logo
The Munch Machine van is decorated with plenty of color and fun monsters

“Just to know that we can have a small part in helping them make that need and help that need be met but definitely very appreciative, we can’t echo that enough. Everyone is very appreciative of it,” said Pierce.

Applications for the program are still open. For more information on the Munch Machine and how to register, click here.