HELENA — With the state mired in a recession with people losing jobs, more Montanans are getting food for their families from food pantries and emergency programs around the state.
The Montana Food Bank Network and its 189 affiliated emergency food programs across the state estimate they will be distributing 12.1 million pounds of food in 2009. That’s up by 19 percent from the 10.2 million pounds of food they handed out in 2008.
The network is expected to distribute 7.1 million pounds of food year this year, while the emergency food programs will give out 5 million pounds that was donated and purchased locally.
These statistics don’t cover the food distributed by Billings Food Bank or by churches in small towns.
“We have really stepped up to provide so much more food,” said Peggy Grimes, executive director of the Montana Food Bank Network, referring to the network and the emergency food programs. “All over the state, people are losing jobs and it is impacting the pantries.”
Food pantries may be compared to grocery stores because they distribute food directly to individuals, Grimes said, while food banks are more like wholesalers that distribute large volumes of food to food pantries and other emergency food providers.
There are three food banks in the state, the Montana Food Bank Network, the Billings Food Bank and the Great Falls Community Food Bank. The Billings Food Bank is not affiliated with the Montana Food Bank.
“The economy is the crux of this whole problem because hunger is always related to family income,” said Minkie Medora, chair of the Food Security Council for the Montana Food Network. “We have more and more people living on the financial edge. They just don’t have any financial buffers.”
A major car repair in the winter, the inability to pay rent or the fear of eviction limits some people’s ability to buy food, she said.
“We now have recession-induced poverty and hunger, in addition to what we had earlier” Medora said. “According to the experts, it’s going to be a long time before we pull out.”
Through Nov. 30, statistics this year show showed that 54,149 “unduplicated” households have visited food pantries run by the Montana Food Bank Network’s partner agencies for a 58.5 percent increase over last year. An “unduplicated” household is one that is provided food at least once during the year, Grimes said.
Statistics for the same period show there have been 292,403 “duplicated” households served by the Montana Food Bank Network’s partner agencies. That is up about 54 percent from last year.
A “duplicated” household is one in which someone from a household returns for food over the year.
These figures show that 781,106 “duplicated” Montana individuals have received food through food pantries through Nov. 30 this year, as have 134,704 “unduplicated” individuals.
Medora said there are other tools for people to use to gain access to more food, particularly government programs.
“We have not yet in Montana maximized participation in the public food programs,” she said.
Eligibility for these programs is based on family incomes. They include food stamps (now known as SNAP), senior commodities and school lunch programs.
“It’s not for the lack of effort by the state,” Medora said. “Lots of people still don’t know about it. They don’t think they’re eligible or they don’t want to participate.”
For 2007, from 62 to 64 percent of the total eligible people had signed up for SNAP or food stamps in Montana, said Kate Bradford, director of public policy for the Food Bank Network. She’d like to see a participation rate of 85 percent or 90 percent.
In September 2009, a record 102,800 Montanans signed up for SNAP, she said.
Medora said new census statistics show that nearly 21 percent of Montana children are on poverty.
“Most schools have breakfast and lunch programs,” she said. “Not too many have a summer food program, which is a really critical program.”
When financial times are tough, “one of the first things that happen is adults start skipping meals,” Medora said. “Then children.”
“When there is not enough money for food, people will take care of their more urgent needs first: rent, heating, fuel for transportation, medical bills, child-care expenses,” Medora said.
She said a network survey in past years found that 40 percent to 50 percent of people said they had to make these hard decisions and usually put food behind these other expenses.
“Food banks and pantries, with the Montana Food Bank Network, do a heroic job,” Medora said.
But the many of the people who receive food are struggling terribly financially, and a monthly food box from a pantry can’t get them through the month.
Bradford said the best solution is to improve the economy, putting people back to work, paying them living wages with health insurance and access to affordable, nutritious food at grocery stores that aren’t many miles away.
She said advocates again will be urging the next Legislature to pass an earned income tax credit for the working poor.
Grimes said people are working to start more “backpack programs” in which school children are given two meals a day in pop-top cans, including a snack, in a backpack so they can have food for Saturday and Sunday or over holidays. Arlee, Billings, Helena. Missoula and Victor offer these programs, she said, but it runs only thorough the school year.
“We’re not going to stop looking for those long-term solutions,” Grimes said. “We need to get people to the other side where they’re able to provide for their own food needs.”