Food Banks Resuming In-Store Shopping Amid Continued High Demand

Flathead Food Bank recently retired curbside pickup, North Valley Food Bank will also reopen doors following remodel

By Skye Lucas
Volunteers sort food at the North Valley Food Bank in Whitefish on July 1, 2021. JP Edge | Flathead Beacon

Clients can once again shop in-store at the Flathead Food Bank, which opened its doors July 12, as demand continues to hover above pre-pandemic levels.

At the end of the summer, customers will also be able to return in-store to the North Valley Food Bank (NVFB) after the nonprofit completes an extensive remodel project that includes an additional 800 square feet to increase refrigeration, freezer and dry goods space, and the installation of a commercial kitchen.

Clients can still pick up pre-packaged box food during the remodel. Once the remodel is complete, NVFB will transition to a choice model approach.  

 “During the pandemic, we distributed food through a drive-thru model,” said Sophie Albert, NVFB’s executive director.

But while a drive-thru ensures social distancing, Albert said its pre-packaged box model is not as individualized, resulting in one size fits all. A family may receive food they don’t know how to cook, or an elder may have more than what they need.

“Now, our plan is to shift from the pre-packaged box model to one of greater integrity and autonomy,” said Albert, who believes a choice model will make clients more likely to come in if they need help. “We see a lot of stigma around it, like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go to the food bank because it means I couldn’t pull myself up.’ But that’s really not the case. Anybody may need it at some point in their life.”

NVFB’s decision to incorporate the choice model follows in the footsteps of food banks across the country and region. 

At Flathead Food Bank, the choice model has been integral to its operations for 10 years. Executive Director Jamie Quinn described it as a dignified approach to distributing food.

“The choice model gives clients the autonomy to pick out the fruits or vegetables that they want,” she said. “It is a whole form of dignity.” 

A volunteer packs food at the North Valley Food Bank in Whitefish on July 1, 2021. JP Edge | Flathead Beacon

When customers shop in-store for the foods they want and need, it reduces potential waste. Clients also connect with others outside of their home and befriend familiar faces. 

Both food banks witnessed community members lose jobs or repeatedly lose pay from quarantining throughout the pandemic, making groceries unaffordable. The need for food distribution at NVFB has tripled since 2019, Albert said, serving a total of 1,294 people then and now a total of 4,445 people regularly. 

In a transitional, post-COVID environment, families continue to face inordinate challenges meeting their basic needs.

“Because housing expenses are through the roof, we’re still seeing an increased need for food,” said Quinn. 

Seeing the surge in need for food distribution in the valley, the Kiita Foundation issued a $75,000 challenge grant to help speed up the food bank’s remodeling project at a recent NVFB open house.

Community members can help with a small or large donation to the capital campaign challenge grant at NVFB. With donations of $50 or more, donors can paint a tile at Stumptown Art Studio in Whitefish, which will adorn the new foyer of the remodeled food bank. 

The food banks are open to anyone. There are no eligibility requirements at NVFB, but starting this year Flathead Food Bank asks for proof of income.

NVFB will continue distribution via curbside and is open every Wednesday and Thursday from noon to 6 p.m.

Shopping hours at Flathead Food Bank are Monday through Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. and Thursday from 1 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.To help streamline the process, customers can pick up an application and income guidelines at the store or call the office at (406) 752-3663 for more information. 

Any additional involvement, from food and money donations to volunteer work, is encouraged, Quinn said. 

 “We really care about our neighbors and we know the Flathead cares about their community,” Quinn said. “The more volunteers we have to feed the community, the stronger we’ll be as a community.”

To make a donation to the North Valley Food Bank’s Capital Campaign, visit www.northvalleyfoodbank.org. To make a donation or volunteer for the Flathead Food Bank, visit www.flatheadfoodbank.org.