BRIDGER — It’s Thursday in Vicki Kaufman’s Bridger classroom, and her new 5th period students are about to change lives.
"The number in front of the bag is the number of kids in the family," Kaufman announces.
Kaufman goes through all the instructions: place the celery in individual bags; six packets of ramen here; loaves of bread on top - and don’t forget the apples. Once the list is checked, students are out the door and across the street to the elementary school. Glen, a veteran of the march, brings in the final delivery.
Kaufman has repeated this process with her classes every week for 10 years, since Cole’s Pantry was formed. The organization’s goal is simple: provide weekend meals for kids whose families can’t afford them.
"Kids are going hungry, and the meals they’re getting at school could be the only meals they’re getting," said Bridger High School principal Jim Goltz. "They need something at home when they go home."
"It’s a huge problem," said Bridger senior Allison Wipf, who transferred from Great Falls two years ago. "It's 1 in 7 adults, 1 in 6 children in Montana, and that's a lot of kids. Even in a small school like this, it's such a big deal. Coming from a bigger school district, there was a lot of it there as well. It’s startling."
According to the Montana Food Bank Network, nearly 37,000 children live in food insecure homes in Montana, though most every group expects that number to increase significantly due to the pandemic.
"The rural communities and the small communities are I believe affected a little more," said Lisa Price, coordinator for the Bridger Community Food Bank. "If you have families who don’t have vehicles to be able to get to where there are economical jobs, the children are the ones that suffer."
Cole Pelican recognized that suffering first-hand at just eight years old.
"He was very concerned and knew that some of his classmates didn’t get to eat on the weekend, and it was a bit of a mystery to him - why he got to eat three meals a day," said Carol Brumfield, Cole's grandmother. "So he eventually would sneak food out of the pantry at home and put it in his own backpack."
Shortly after that, tragedy struck. Cole was killed in a ranching accident, so when older sister Fallon was trying to come up with an FCCLA project to honor him the next year, she and Kaufman knew exactly where to start.
Cole’s Pantry fed 11 kids in eight families that first year, but word quickly spread and pantries popped up in four other schools nearby. After three years, it was seven schools feeding nearly 500 kids every week.
"I think it has an amazing message, in that anyone can help," said Wipf. "That’s so important."
"It seems to be such a heartfelt organization that you tell the story and people say, ‘How can I get involved?’" Brumfield added.
By 2018, Brumfield’s other daughter started a pantry at Huntley Project, and Brumfield realized she wanted to - and could - do more.
"By that time I had researched some of the sad facts, and I shared that with some close friends and created an amazing Board of Directors," Brumfield said. "We thought we could make a little difference in that first year, and so we quickly pulled together our own fundraiser under the Cole's Pantry umbrella. We were shocked from the results and the support from the community and family. Then last year in 2019, that tripled in size."
Brumfield and crew formed Cole’s Pantry Inc. and started to fundraise on a bigger level. The group came up with an event last year at the MetraPark Expo Center hoping to sell 500 tickets, which they did - in one day. So they added 100 more seats, and after the dust settled, couldn't believe the generosity in front of them.
"We netted $130,000," Brumfield said.
So the foundation is thinking bigger. There are now 20 Cole’s Pantry’s across Montana, providing meals for over 1250 kids every single weekend. When a new group applies, the startup costs are completely paid for. Cole’s younger brother Chance has even started his own initiative, providing sports equipment to each new program to promote a healthy lifestyle.
All the Board asks is that each Pantry figures out a way to keep it going through their own fundraising, which never seems to be a problem. Even the original in Bridger is still coming up with new ideas, partnering with the local food bank.
"It started by accident. Somebody arrived early summer and said, "We have Cole’s Pantry donations.' And I said we'd hold them, so we became a holding center," Price said. "The following fall, I came with a truckload and brought all sorts of food (to the high school).
"I love it. I absolutely love it. It brings a warmth to your heart. You may not know the families or the children that you’re helping, but you know that it helps. You know that those children are not going to go hungry this evening. Tomorrow morning, they’ll start their day not feeling like they’re hungry."
An important rule Cole’s Pantry established early on - the program is completely confidential. That’s why bags are delivered to the elementary office - only Kaufman and the secretary knows which families they’re going to. It has encouraged more people to apply, not worrying as much about pride in a small town.
But it’s another quality that seems to provide all the fuel the Pantry will ever need.
"I don’t want to take anything away from bigger communities, but there’s just something so special about small communities," Goltz said. "People rally around things like this, because it might be a cousin, it might be a close friend so people really jump on board. When you see fundraisers going on in a small community, people come out of the woodwork."
So what's the end goal? Feeding 1250 kids is a wonderful achievement, but there's still a long way to go. How about a Cole's Pantry in every school in Montana?
"Every rural school, yeah," Brumfield said. "I said two years ago, my passion that's been put on my heart is to feed them all, and I think with all the gracious support we’ve gotten, that is a reality.
"We'll have to have people to pass the baton down to, but we’re three generations deep with this now. That’s a blessing in itself too."
Just as Cole was - and continues to be - for thousands of Montana’s next generation.
If you'd like to start your own chapter, click here. It doesn't have to be affiliated with a school - any group with a passion to end childhood hunger is welcome.