High Holiday Demand at Flathead Valley Food Banks

As grocery store prices and fuel costs rise, food banks are seeing more households in need

By Maggie Dresser
Canned foods on a shelf at North Valley Food Bank in Whitefish on Nov. 19, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Since North Valley Food Bank (NVFB) in Whitefish opened its new grocery store at the end of October following a remodel, Executive Director Sophie Albert says the demand has gone from serving about 290 households in a week to 73 households in a day.

“It’s very busy,” Albert said. “We’ve really seen an uptick in numbers.”

Rising food, fuel and heating costs are likely contributing to the increase in demand, Albert says, and the food bank’s decrease in supply from its usual sources is putting a strain on families as the holiday season approaches.

According to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, the consumer price index for grocery store and supermarket food purchases increased 1.1% from Aug. 2021 to Sept. 2021 and was 4.5% higher than Aug. 2020. The gasoline consumer price index rose 6.1% in October and natural gas rose 6.6% over the same month, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics data.

Albert usually buys food in bulk at grocery stores like Safeway, Super 1 and Costco, but supply chain disruptions are limiting the amount NVFB can purchase, causing a heavier reliance on donations.

Without donations, Albert says the food bank probably wouldn’t be able to give a turkey to every household in need of one.

“Every hour we get community members dropping off donations,” Albert said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to.”

Meat and milk have also been difficult to source at NVFB and staff members are working to get cranberry sauce, pie filling, stuffing and ham for the holidays.

At the Flathead Food Bank in Kalispell, Executive Director Jamie Quinn recently distributed Thanksgiving meals for 500 households. Overall, she’s noticing a higher demand for food as prices rise.

“One of the grocery store leads said to expect a minimum of 10% (increase in price),” Quinn said.

Quinn began sourcing holiday food early this year to make sure the food bank was well stocked, and she says they haven’t had any issues with supply even as demand increases.

Since the Flathead Food Bank purchased the southern end of Gateway Mall about two years ago, Quinn and her staff have been working to add warehousing space to stockpile food and become a central hub for the Flathead Valley in a collaboration with the Montana Food Bank Network.

The Flathead Food Bank shares its resources with NVFB, the Northwest Montana Veterans Food Pantry in Evergreen, the Bigfork Food Bank and it has a mobile distribution service that goes to areas west of Kalispell and Bad Rock Canyon.

“It makes it easier on us and customers,” Quinn said. “We want to make sure people can access food where they live, work and play and we feed everybody, not just people in Kalispell or Flathead County.”

Construction will begin on the Flathead Food Bank’s remodel next spring or summer, and Quinn says they plan to renovate the entire space, adding doors big enough for efficient unloading, cold storage space, bathrooms and food pantry expansion in the 28,000-square-foot building.

At NVFB, Albert says they just finished a remodel that added 800 square feet for cooler space, which also created more room in the warehouse. It also allowed them to open a grocery store for customers to shop in, an upgrade from the pre-packaged food boxes that staff and volunteers distributed to families via drive-thru.

“With the store, people have been really excited to come in,” Albert said. “Instead of getting a box, they get to choose. They leave excited because it actually feels like shopping and it’s nice to see people smiling.”

Quinn says she’s noticed higher spirits at the Flathead Food Bank too as people prepare for the holidays.

“Most people are really grateful,” Quinn said. “There’s something about Thanksgiving where everyone’s in a great mood … It’s the gift of a holiday and knowing you will have a holiday is something people are so blessed to have and most of what we hear is utter gratitude.”

The Flathead Food Bank is located at 1203 U.S. Highway 2 W in Kalispell and the NVFB is located at 251 Flathead Ave. in Whitefish.

For more information or to volunteer, visit, www.northvalleyfoodbank.org and www.flatheadfoodbank.org.