Keeping Pace With Rising Poverty

By Beacon Staff

When Lori Botkin, the executive director at the Flathead Food Bank, hears that the latest U.S. Census data shows the amount of Americans living below the poverty line is the highest since 1993, she simply nods her head in agreement.

In fact, these days Botkin can barely break away to talk about the issue of poverty. There’s too much work to be done.

Handing out roughly 10,000 pounds of food a week and over 1 million pounds last year to people in need, the Flathead Food Bank is busier than ever right now. And it’s about to get busier.

“People are already starting to ask, ‘what are you going to do for the holidays?’” Botkin said while organizing the monthly delivery of food to senior citizens.

The staff of seven employees and roughly 400 active volunteers are seeing more and more families at the food bank in the Gateway West Mall hoping for assistance in the form grocery bags of basics, such as peanut butter, eggs and rice.

The latest census data shows that roughly 15 percent of the country lives in poverty, or about 46.2 million people. The national poverty line is defined as an income of $22,314 for a family of four and $11,139 for an individual.

In Flathead County, roughly 12,300 people live in poverty, or 14 percent of the population, according to the latest estimate by the American Community Survey of persons whom poverty status is determined.

Unemployment in Flathead County continues to hover around 10 percent and middle-class incomes continue to decline, per census reports, which has led to a wider array of customers at the food bank.

“A couple years ago we were seeing families that worked multiple jobs or young families with minimum wage jobs not making it and using us as a supplement,” Botkin said. “Now we’re seeing middle income families with nice cars but they’ve lost their jobs. They’re embarrassed to be here but they don’t have anywhere to turn for help.”

Last year the nonprofit organization saw a large increase in need. From 2009 to 2010, the food bank went from giving out 860,000 pounds in a year to over 1.2 million, the most ever.

The food bank, which acts as the headquarters in the valley with other pantry locations in Bigfork, Marion, Evergreen and Martin City, served 50,580 people in 2010. Over 20,000 boxes of food were delivered to 3,795 households.

More than half the resources are provided from local donors, Botkin said. The other half comes from the food bank itself, but the burden has grown the last few months after statewide funding officially dried up in June. Last spring the Legislature voted to cut $2 million for the state’s food banks, which equals almost $30,000 a month lost for the Flathead Food Bank, Botkin said.

In response to shrinking aid, Botkin and others came up with a way to help supplement the food bank and its growing budget.

A new thrift store called Second Helpings is opening next month. Located next door to the food bank, the second-hand goods store is aimed at being exactly what the name describes, a second helping, for customers but also for the food bank itself.

“I can’t tell you enough how supportive our community is. But one of the other ideas for the thrift store is how much can you ask your community to do without creating donor fatigue?” Botkin said. “That’s why we’ve created the thrift store, to create ongoing sustainability for the Flathead Food Bank.”

The Flathead Food Bank is located at 1203 U.S. Highway 2 West, in suite 2 of the Gateway West Mall. Donations can be made online at www.flatheadfoodbank.com, or by calling 752-3663.

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