Food Banks Struggling to Keep Up With Skyrocketing Need

By Beacon Staff

At the food bank in Kalispell, with just a week before the Thanksgiving holiday, Director Lori Botkin is stocking up on supplies: turkeys, huge bags of potatoes and loaves of bread. For the first time in her four-year tenure, she’s out of canned vegetables.

And in the food bank’s lobby there’s another first: An overflowing crowd of local citizens waiting patiently to take home their share of foodstuffs. Many of them are “middle-class families,” who have never needed the food bank before.

“We’re seeing about 35 percent more families than we were at this time last year,” said Botkin, who runs the Flathead Food Bank, which has sites in Kalispell, Evergreen, Martin City, Marion and Bigfork. Four more food pantries – Lakeside, Columbia Falls, Whitefish and Kalispell’s Veterans Pantry – operate throughout the valley under other groups or individuals.

“It started in August,” Botkin added. “We went from 185 families in the second week of the month to 325 families in the third week. It was that drastic over a one-week period – and it hasn’t slowed down since.”

Now, Botkin’s five pantries are setting a new record every week for the number of people served. Two weeks ago, they saw 482 families – 325 of those came in one day. “It’s absolutely crazy,” she said.

It’s the same story across the valley: With strains on the local and national economy, this year will be one of the most demanding on record for food banks. Need is already up 25 to 35 percent from this time last year, leaving many pantries running short on supplies. And those who were once donors are now finding themselves in need.

Elsewhere around the country, food banks are reporting critical shortages that have forced them to cut portions, distribute staples usually reserved for disaster relief and in some instances close. Experts have attributed the national shortages to a combination of factors, including rising need, a sharp drop in federal supplies of excess farm products and tighter inventory controls that are leaving supermarkets and other retailers with less food to donate.

In the Flathead, food bank directors all point to troubles with the economy as the main factor for the rush on their pantries. Demand is being driven up by rising costs of food, housing, utilities, health care, gasoline and a growing unemployment rate, they say.

The demographics of those seeking help are changing as well: Directors say their pantries are serving “people who get up and go to work every day,” “middle-class families” and senior citizens struggling to live on fixed incomes.

“In the waiting room on pantry day there’s lots of professionally dressed people, people who were steady, middle-class families that never thought they’d be in this position,” Alexandra Bussey, the Flathead Food Bank’s office manager and volunteer coordinator, said. “There are people who come here in a big SUV because they can’t sell it, or who own their homes. But that still doesn’t mean they can put food on the table, right now.”

At the same time need is growing, donations in some areas are decreasing, as past contributors, feeling their own economic pinch, aren’t giving to the charities they once supported. “Donations for money and food are both down,” Leslie Knuth, director of the West Shore Food Bank in Lakeside, said. “I’m buying more food than I’ve ever had to buy.”

Local businesses and community groups have kept Botkin’s stores – and their counterparts in Columbia Falls and Whitefish – from lagging too badly. But a District Court ruling in Missoula ended a program this fall where municipal offenders could pay part of their court fines by donating canned food to be given to food banks. “Food for Fines” brought in 10,000 pounds of food last year for the Flathead Food Bank, Botkin said.

And in Whitefish, Safeway’s temporary construction closure has shut down one of director June Munski Feenan’s primary food sources – at a time when seasonal, foreign workers often need the help of the food bank.

The crush is likely to worsen, or at least continue, here for the next few months: Holidays are always the busiest time of year at these food banks, and directors are anticipating handing out at least 25 percent more Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets. Directors are asking those who can to donate food, time or money. And telling those who may need help not to be afraid to come in.

“Truly, most of us are a couple paychecks away from needing the food bank ourselves,” Botkin said.