The snow-clogged streets on Billings' South Side kept seniors Marilyn and Karl Johnson housebound for several weeks, and with no supermarket within walking distance, their pantry was pretty bare by Tuesday.
“I hate this weather. When it's winter, I don’t drive,” Marilyn said, adding that her husband's driver's license expires next month.
On a rare trip out Tuesday, the Johnsons made their way to the Southside Senior Center, where Family Service Inc. was handing out groceries and taking applications for a new delivery service specifically for South Side seniors.
Word of seniors bartering away half their food box just to get a ride downtown to Family Service Inc. to pick up the food prompted the organization to begin deliveries, said Jane McCracken, Family Service's director of development.
The nonprofit organization hands out 1.3 million pounds of food to roughly 5,800 low-income households every year. Senior citizens, families with young children and people with disabilities are well represented in the households Family Service Inc. helps out.
Each household gets a monthly food box weighing 80 to 100 pounds. The boxes include everything from meat and vegetables to fruit and bread. Most of the food is donated by Albertsons through the “Fresh Food Rescue Program.”
Stacy Brown, Family Service's executive director, said South Side deliveries will initially serve 60 families, but the organization knows there are more seniors in this part of Billings who struggle to get around in the winter. The group wants to expand deliveries quickly to meet demand.
Walt Acra, who busily signed up seniors Tuesday, said there could be as many as 200 seniors on the South Side who could benefit from delivery. The seniors who didn’t make it to the Southside Senior Center for signup on Tuesday should call Family Service Inc., Brown said. The organization will help seniors sign up.
Billings Praise Center volunteers will deliver the food to seniors who lack transportation. For those seniors, this is a tough part of Billings to live in. The only grocery store south of the railroad tracks is Sam’s Club, which is a members-only discount store. The community used to have South Side State Avenue IGA, but the store closed in 2013. There are convenience stores in the area where dairy products and snack food can be purchased, but there are no groceries to speak of.
As Marilyn Johnson filled out an application for delivery, Karl Johnson grabbed a cloth bag and perused the folding tables where food was laid out for the taking. There was frozen buffalo hamburger, fresh fruit salad, bread and vegetables for stir fry. There were even cookies and calorie-packed nutrition drinks.
“I’m getting piggy,” Karl Johnson said, as he dropped a chub of buffalo burger in his sack and felt the bag’s heft in his hand. It really wasn’t that full. He had a small amount of burger, a bag of spicy pork rinds and some bread.
“No, you’re not. There’s more than enough for everybody,” Brown assured him.
Often, seniors will pass on food because they suspect there’s a family with children who need it more, Brown said afterward. There’s enough for both at Family Service Inc., she said, though recent cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, have driven up demand for Family Service food boxes. Seniors lost $25 to $40 a month in SNAP benefits, Brown said. Families with children lost even more because they're larger households.
The need for food aid is great, Brown said. As she spoke, in the community room of the Southside Senior Center, a dozen seniors played bingo. Each time a winner called out, they were directed to a table with food on it to claim their prize.
“Bingo!” one woman shouted. Then, the game started up again.