By Christin Rzasa
The holiday season is the time of the year when being in need is most keenly felt by those in difficult financial circumstances. Fortunately, this is also the time of year when the folks in the Bitterroot Valley show just how generous a people we are. A wide variety of local organizations offer free Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for residents who don’t have the means for preparing a holiday meal, the ingredients for which can be prohibitively expensive. For those who do have the facility and the desire to do the cooking, there is a host of amazing volunteers – from Darby to Florence – working to make that holiday tradition a reality. Local affiliates of the Montana Foodbank Network labor year-round to ensure that “members of our community do not go to bed hungry,” as the mission statement of Stevensville’s Pantry Partners organization promises, offering clients “a hand up, not a hand-out.” While this facility works to aid residents of the northern end of the Bitterroot, Haven House in Hamilton feeds folks from Victor Crossing south, and Darby Breadbox works with those in the Darby zip code.
The demographics of the client-groups for each organization are surprisingly diverse and unique to each community. Karen Sanchez, Board President for Pantry Partners, has seen an increase in younger people experiencing difficulty providing enough food for their families. Her background in information technology gave her the skills to create an excellent, informative and easy-to-use website (www.pantrypartnersfoodbank.org) so the group can reach those younger families.
“You need more avenues to reach a younger generation of people in need today. They’re used to using technology – that’s how they communicate,” Sanchez said recently. She also voiced a desire to involve more young people in the Pantry Partners operation, which is run – like all three Montana Food Bank affiliates in the valley – entirely with volunteers, working various shifts at the facility. A corps of 36 generous souls assist clients, stock shelves, and process donated food items. Other volunteers serve as “gleaners,” picking up donations from the local grocery stores (in Stevensville, both the Burnt Fork Market and Super 1 Foods contribute to the Pantry) as well as stores in Hamilton and The Good Food Store in Missoula. The organization has a budget of funds used to purchase foods at a very low cost from the Montana Food Bank to help keep their shelves stocked, and it takes many hands to unload the semi-trailer-load of supplies that arrive every six weeks. Sanchez praises her volunteers but adds that more are always needed and volunteering is just another form of generosity.
“A lot of people have more time than money to give,” says Sanchez. “Sometimes we struggle to cover positions at the Pantry.”
The Pantry Partners facility at 3614 ALC Way, Stevensville, houses a beautiful walk-in freezer for donated meat, including wild game, and “The Porch” stocks baked goods from local bakeries, dairy items and fresh produce, donated in large part by local gardeners. The building is a hub of resources for folks in need. Besides providing once-a-month food boxes for their clients, they also offer information on various assistance programs, and they share the space with The Clothes Closet, a discrete organization which proffers recycled clothing, small kitchen equipment, and household linens.
Up the valley in Hamilton, Judy Williams, Manager and Director of the Haven House Food Bank at 316 N. 3rd Street, #162, is also grateful for the loyal group of volunteers who work in three teams of eight to cover shifts at the food bank.
“We’re very fortunate to have the volunteers we do,” Williams said. “Each team works really well together – we’re very busy! Every month, we provide food to at least 2,000 people.”
On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Haven House volunteers were hustling to find room in the freezer and store rooms for the goods that would fill the Thanksgiving dinner boxes to be handed out on Saturday. The Cherry Creek Radio Turkey Drive garners turkeys and funds which help fill holiday boxes (for all the local food banks), and students from Corvallis and Hamilton High Schools recently collected nearly 2,000 pounds of food to help meet the holiday demands. Haven House also purchases supplies and receives donations from local grocery stores, and regional gardeners provide plenty of fresh produce during the growing season.
Williams feels their client demographic leans more toward single men, many of whom are homeless, but she adds, “We feed anyone in need. We have the nicest people coming in to get food – and some of the saddest stories.”
Although a somewhat smaller facility than their sister organizations to the north, the Darby Breadbox is no less essential, the community no less generous. More than a dozen volunteers help stock the shelves and freezers of the Breadbox, located at 304 E. Tanner.
“We rely a lot on monetary donations,” says volunteer Linda Griggs. Those donated funds, along with money provided by a grant from the Town Pump Corporation, allow the organization to purchase food at a discount from the local People’s Market, which additionally pitches in with overstock and near-out-of-date items. Griggs said volunteers shop for the Breadbox at the Dollar Store in Missoula, buying basic household supplies as well as personal-needs items to help “take care of the little problems before they become worse.” The Darby Ranger District of the Bitterroot National Forest pitches in with food drives, and Marcus Daly Hospital in Hamilton runs a spring food drive that keeps the Breadbox stocked at a time of the year when donations tend to fall off but demand for monthly food boxes doesn’t lessen.
Griggs sees the Darby Breadbox client demographic leaning more toward seniors – “especially seniors raising grandchildren” — and she notes that Darby is home to seasonal residents, many of whom remember the Breadbox when they’re packing to leave in the fall by donating boxes of food items they either can’t take with them or don’t want to leave over the winter. As with other communities in the valley, Darby-area gardeners are generous with their summer harvests, and hunters help keep the freezers stocked, donating game through the Montana “Hunters Against Hunger” program.
While most of the valley’s food banks are seeing around the same numbers of clients-in-need for 2018, compared to 2017, the longer view shows a steady growth in demand for food-assistance. Fortunately, the Bitterroot Valley is defined not only by the Bitterroot and Sapphire mountains but by a generosity of spirit and a willingness to give a neighbor in need a hand up.