Scott Wooden chops tomatoes

Scott Wooden chops tomatoes in the kitchen at the Montana Rescue Mission on Nov. 10. The mission's biggest meal of the year will be served today.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

Montana Rescue Mission expects 700 for Thanksgiving dinners today.

“Thanksgiving is our biggest meal,” said Denise Smith, mission community relations manager. “Last year, we had 680 and 370 of those were delivered.”

The meal preparation began earlier in the week when the Montana Chefs and Cooks Association baked 90 turkeys at the Billings Food Bank’s commercial kitchen. The professional chefs prepared gallons of gravy and stuffing, too.

Meanwhile Debbie Patterson and her kitchen crew prepped the rest of the trimmings for the Montana Rescue Mission. Both Billings Food Bank and Montana Rescue Mission will serve free Thanksgiving midday meals today for all who want to share the holiday fare. About 400 people dined on Thanksgiving at the Food Bank last year, according to director Sheryle Shandy.

The Rescue Mission will partner today with Yellowstone County Adult Resource Alliance to deliver Thanksgiving dinners to all the Meals on Wheels regulars. The mission also will deliver Christmas dinners to shut-ins. An army of volunteers does the holiday meal serving and delivering.

What many in Billings don’t know is that troops of volunteers are feeding needy people in our community every day of the year. This charitable food network connects faith congregations, schools, private nonprofit helping organizations and individuals of all ages who want to make sure no one goes hungry in our city.

The volunteer food network is a crucial community service that fills gaps between federal government nutrition programs and what local people can afford. Neither the government nor the private sector alone can meet the need of the Montanans who lack the money to pay for essentials.

About 12 percent of Montana’s residents buy groceries monthly through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In Yellowstone County, that’s about 17,414 children and adults, according to Montana Department of Health and Human Services data. The average recipient got $115 in food benefits in a recent month, not nearly enough to provide a month’s worth of food.

Nearly 15 percent of Montanans — 150,000 of us, including 19 percent of our children — live in poverty. That’s why the private charity food network is so vital to preventing hunger and malnutrition.

The need has grown this past year. Montana Rescue Mission is on track to serve 92,000 meals in 2017, said mission spokeswoman Denise Smith. In recent years, the total has been around 81,000 meals.

“Our (overnight) guest numbers are up,” Smith said. “We had 2,100 unique guests in 2016 and 2,400 in 2017” with two months left to go.

The Women and Children’s Shelter at First Avenue North and North 26th Street has 115 beds, while the men’s dorm on Minnesota has 98.

“We’re never full, because we have enough cots and enough mats that we’ll put them down on the floor if need be,” Smith said. On “Code Blue” nights when the temperature is below freezing, mission staff go out and invite people into the shelter, Smith said. “We don’t want you freezing out on the street.”

The mission tries to help people help themselves. There are faith-based programs for adults who are battling addiction and trying to turn their lives around. Working people stay at the mission until they can afford their own home. The mission offers classes in personal finance, hygiene and food preparation.

The mission usually has more people at the table toward the end of the month.

When government nutrition benefits, like SNAP, run out, individuals and families often turn to the mission for meals, the table is more crowded toward the end of the month.

Between the two homeless shelters and meals provided to the Community Crisis Center, Montana Rescue Mission feeds dozens of people 365 days a year.

On Thanksgiving Day, let’s give thanks for all the individuals, faith communities and charitable organizations that nourish our community with generosity and healthy food.

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