GREAT FALLS - It’s not a new issue. Kathy Sanders, Belinda Thrift, and Sheree Nelson have been distributing goods to people in need through Vineyard Church’s Mercy Ministry for more than 30 years.
The student food pantry at Great Falls College: Montana State University has been around since about 2014, and even though David Mariani only took over operation of the pantry recently, it’s an issue he’s familiar with as well.
The food pantry at Morningside Elementary School is just one of many food pantries that operate within the Great Falls Public School district. Morningside Principal Kim Defries and Administrative Assistant Ashley Apple say they’ve seen it too.
According to the Montana Department of Commerce, the average county poverty rate in the state is 12.9%. Cascade County comes in slightly above that average at 13.4%. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only made things more difficult for a lot of people. An October study by Columbia University’s Center on Poverty & Social Policy found that stimulus money and unemployment benefits distributed through the CARES brought over 18 million people in the U.S. out of monthly poverty in April. When many of those benefits expired later in 2020, that number fell to around 4 million people.
That same study also found that the monthly poverty rate in the U.S. increased from 15% to 16.7% from February to September 2020.
The issue is that, despite the rising numbers of people who need help, food pantries are finding that many people either don’t know how to ask or are afraid to.
“We have a little bit of a war on poverty,” said Mariani, the Montana Campus Compact AmeriCorps Leader at Great Falls College. “It’s a long, long struggle, and we’re doing what we can. Here at Great Falls College, we have so much support, it’s really great. Everyone from the dean down has been really helpful at donating food and time and resources.”
“My feeling is that it’s pride,” said Sanders seated next to her fellow Mercy Ministry volunteers in the basement of the Vineyard Church building. “It’s hard to ask people to help.”
“Nobody wants to be that person,” said Nelson. “It just makes you feel weak and that you can’t provide and you can’t do what you want to do to provide for your family.”
"We’ve all needed some kind of help somewhere along the way,” she said.
Over at Morningside, Defries and Apple believe they’ve created a solid community where many people don’t feel like a burden or embarrassed for asking for help. Apple says a big part of that is the ongoing relationships they create with their students and their families that carry over from year to year.
Whenever new families come into the school system, that presents a challenge, but the school has a system they implement to try and make things easier for those incoming students.
“I think it’s very overwhelming when you’re a new family coming to a school and you don’t know who to reach out to, so to make that connection and just introduce to our counselor,” said Apple. “I think that just takes the burden off those families to know who to contact if they do need something, and that just starts that rapport, when there is a need or they need help down the line.”
As for what causes the stigma and fear that sometimes prevents people who need help from asking for it, Defries believes it starts when we’re young.
“We teach kids at a very young age to be independent, and that’s what we are hoping, that they grow up to be independent, successful community members, and sometimes life doesn’t always allow for those things to happen and sometimes things get in the way,” she said. “So, when that does (happen), we need to be able to not judge and not make people feel embarrassed, because we all have situations in our lives at different times that we need support, even if it’s not just food. I think that’s where it comes from. We do want our children to grow up to be independent, and so when they have to ask for help, they struggle a little bit because we have ingrained in them and society has ingrained in them that you need to be self-sufficient, and sometimes we can’t. We’re all human, we don’t all have everything that we need at all times. Just knowing that is very beneficial.”
Vineyard gives out food to people in need every Saturday morning. Going on 30 plus years now, Kathy, Belinda, and Sheree weren’t going to let the COVID-19 pandemic get in their way. While the boxes of bread, frozen vegetables, and even cakes start going out at 9 a.m., there are usually people lined up well before then. One by one, people provide their intake information to Belinda at a table just outside the door and then wait for their personalized boxes to be put together and delivered to them.
The food comes from a combination of grocery stores and organizations in the area, including Set Free Christian Fellowship, IGA, Target, and Loaf N’ Jug. The Mercy Ministry also gets government commodities from the USDA’s TEFAP Program.
Kathy estimates that they were giving out around 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of food each month before the pandemic. Now that number has ballooned to between 30,000 and 40,000 pounds.
While the line stretches further and further from the building, the team of over 10 people does the heavy lifting behind the scenes. Just inside a set of doors and down the stairs from the desk where Belinda takes names and information, the hustle and bustle of a Saturday morning preparing boxes of food for people in need hasn’t slowed down during the pandemic. The only things that have changed are the noticeable increases in the amount of food in boxes and masks on faces.
It’s a community that the entire group, especially Sheree, Belinda, and Kathy, have worked consistently hard to create.
“I think the ones that are the most comfortable are those who have friends that have already done this,” said Belinda. “You know, word of mouth. We take care of Suzy Q and she goes home and tells Freddy, and he says ‘wow, okay, those people were kind of nice, maybe I’ll join ya next week.’ Several people have brought their neighbors or friends with them the next time or the next time.”
That’s part of the benefit that comes with over 30 years of doing what they do.
Back across town at Great Falls College, David doesn’t have 30 years of experience like Vineyard, but he still envisions a community much like the one his fellow food pantry managers have created.
“I would like everyone to feel comfortable coming to me, but I know that some folks just aren’t,” David admitted. “So, they can email me, they can call me, I set up an online order form, and they can just send me their order, and I will put it together, and they can just pick it up. I do want folks to be involved and come see me, but if they are not at that place at this particular time, that is okay. I am more than happy to help them get what they need.”
It's an interesting phenomenon and one that I asked David about when we sat down via Zoom for this story. The pantry at Great Falls College is for students, put together with donations from faculty, staff, and even other students. Students might not be the first group you think of when you consider the number of people living in poverty in Montana that need assistance of some kind, but David puts it into perspective well.
“Great Falls has, for a long time, struggled with the financial aspects of life,” he explained. “It’s difficult in this town. We have lower wages, and it’s not easy. Great Falls isn’t as expensive a place to live as Bozeman or Missoula, but it’s definitely not free. I would say that anyone who is in college does not have a whole lot of money, not in Great Falls. I’ve spent many years myself as a poor college student, and with the pandemic, I’m just hoping that people realize that they can get food from me, and use whatever cash they have to pay the rent or the electric bill or whatever else they need. I do have students who are homeless, I have students who have home insecurity, and the basics in life are beyond my reach, but I can do a little bit to help with the food part.”
At the end of the day, each food pantry manager has the same goal: to help those who need help. They’re often finding that the biggest issue facing them is how to make it easier for people who need help to ask for it. As Kim hypothesized above, the idea of independence and self-sufficiency is ingrained in many people when they’re young, which can make asking for help feel like a foreign concept. Each person has some ideas about how we as a community can make it easier for those people that need help to ask for it and get it.
David believes in ease of access. “The online order form just went up recently, so it hasn’t gotten a lot of usage yet,” he said. “It was something that was not available. I do get requests by email, but I’m hoping, with the spring semester, especially if we are still working on this pandemic, and folks are not able to come to me in person, then I’m really hoping that this online ordering is going to be a useful tool for them, and also convenient because they can just pick it up when they’re free.”
At the Vineyard Church Mercy Ministry, it’s community connection and reassurance, but also the consistency of providing assistance to so many people for so long.
“For a couple of them, I just really encouraged them,” said Belinda. “They’re worried that they’ll deplete our supplies, or that somebody might need it more than them, and I assure them that there is enough to go around, and that their needs are valid and that we want to help them too...that it’s okay. Sometimes I have to say that more than once before it sinks in.”
Finally, at Morningside, it starts with the first time a student and their family comes through the school’s doors. That builds a long-lasting relationship of trust, but they also employ a similar method to David’s, trying to make it as easy as possible for people that need their help to get it.
“It’s not the only time that we are working with our families. So, when a crisis does come or when a situation presents itself where they are in need, we already have that relationship established,” Kim explained. “We also have a pretty good system that I think is very respectful to parents in that, if they need anything, they just check off on this list that’s provided. They check it off, the student brings it back, they give it to the teacher, the teacher gives it to our counselor, we load up what they need, call them when it’s ready, they just drive up to our backdoor and we load their car and go. It’s really just not a big deal, and we, don’t make it a big deal.”