MISSOULA - Food banks and families across Montana are struggling to keep their shelves stacked with food.
The rise in the cost of food is prompting families to turn to their local food pantries, which are also seeing food price hikes.
Montana Food Bank Network representatives told MTN News the problem stems from a combination of the rising cost of food, transportation issues, and the lingering effects of COVID-19.
“We, last month, saw 390 people in one day in our store, which is the highest number we’ve ever seen, and that’s a trend that we continue to see happening,” said Missoula Food Bank Executive Director Amy Allison Thompson.
Thompson and other representatives at the Missoula Food Bank have been a listening ear to the many families that come through their doors needing a little extra help.
“We are hearing from lots of folks especially families that their making decisions to go to bed hungry to make sure their kids have enough to eat,” Thompson said.
Lake County residents are also feeling the effects of inflation on food, according to Marie Hirsch who is the executive director of the Arlee Community Development Corporation, which also serves as a food pantry for the town.
“The biggest impact we’re seeing is among families with fixed incomes primarily with the elderly or young families where you have people working at lower salaries, and it’s just hard to make things meet up to the end of the month,” Hirsch said.
Food Bank representatives said COVID-19 government funding for food assistance resources has also changed dramatically, which plays a part in the strain of resources that all food banks are seeing across the state.
“Two years ago, we were in COVID, so the funding that was available was to food pantries was coming in at unprecedented rates,” Hirsch said. "Foundations were funding, the state was funding. The federal government was sending money, and now all of those resources seem to have dried up.”
The Montana Food Bank Network, helps shelves stay stocked at hundreds of food banks and pantries across the state. The agency said it saw a 12% increase in 2022 for its food purchases in comparison to 2021.
That price hike has a trickle-down effect on the neighborhood pantries and food banks that are in partnership with the MTBN.
The food at home index rose 7.1% over the last 12 months according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' May 10, 2023 report. Food bank leaders confirmed through data that families and individuals are facing inflation or higher prices on consumer goods while already trying to make ends meet.
“I think that it’s important to remember that just because in a couple of weeks the government’s going to say ‘hey, the pandemic is over,’ it doesn't mean the economic consequences of the pandemic is over,” said Missoula Food Bank Director of Development Jesse Jaeger. “We have a lot of people living in our community who have been pushed to the edge economically because of the pandemic and really still need our support.”
Last year, the Montana Food Bank Network distributed 16.5 million pounds of food for about $3.6 Million. As of May 2023, that purchase would cost $432,000 more for the same amount of food, according to Montana Food Bank Network Vice President Brent Weisgram.
Read the full statement from the Montana Food Bank Network’s President and CEO Gayle Carlson below.
“While food banks, pantries and meal programs are not experiencing the same numbers utilizing their services as we did during the pandemic we are seeing that households are returning to their local food bank or pantry more frequently throughout the month. For example, families accessed food assistance on average twice in the month of January 2021 while in January 2023, they visited their food bank/pantry on average 4.3 times that month. Not only are they feeling the strain of increased costs of living out-pacing wages, but the average 12% increase in food costs have forced them to look for assistance more frequently to make ends meet. This same increase is being felt across the food bank network at a time when Montanans need our help.”
Food bank representatives told MTN News they aren’t necessarily seeing more families coming in, but families or individuals are visiting more frequently for food and other forms of assistance.
“We are feeling the effects of inflation,” Thompson said. “Folks are coming in talking about how expensive groceries are and that they’re coming in for the first time because of that.”
Most local food banks offer resources outside of food to get families the extra help they need.
According to Jaeger, it’s because they understand, “everything is kind of connected. Food, housing insecurity, health care access all that stuff kind of comes together, and we need to have a wrap-around holistic view of how we support folks living on the margins.”
Although food bank representatives said the dollar amount isn't purchasing as much as it used to, they are working to serve the community adequately.
“At this point, we have not had to turn people away, but there are definitely times when our shelves are a little more bare than others," Thompson said. "We are really lucky to rely on our partners through Feeding America and our grocery rescue program, where we are just continually restocking shelves throughout the day, so folks are typically able to get what they need."