North Valley Food Bank Kicks Off Food Drive Amid Increased Demand

In 2019 the food bank moved 390,000 pounds of food for distribution. In 2021, that number rose to 1.1 million pounds.

By Mike Kordenbrock
Canned food sits on shelves at the North Valley Food Bank in Whitefish on Oct. 4, 2019. Beacon file photo

As it kicks off its biggest food drive of the year, the North Valley Food Bank in Whitefish is continuing to report an increased demand for food and other necessities.

The food bank typically sees an uptick during the holidays followed by decreased demand in January.

“We really aren’t seeing that. This year our numbers remain high,” said Sophie Albert, the executive director for the food bank. Based on her conversations with other food banks in the area, Albert said that NVFB is not alone in seeing demand remain high.

NVFB is continuing to serve between 750 and 800 people a week, which is up from  550-650 people in 2020 and 300 to 350 people in 2019. To further put the increased demand in perspective, Albert shared the total weight of food moved to meet demand. In 2019, the food bank distributed 390,000 pounds of food to meet demand. In 2020 that increased to 629,155 pounds. In 2021, it was 1.1 million pounds.

The growth in demand is a cause for concern at the food bank, but Albert said they haven’t had to turn people away. In some instances they’ve been unable to provide requested items, and instead have had to turn to alternatives. A typical box from the food bank includes a week’s worth of groceries for a family. The size of the boxes is dependent on the size of the family, and a typical box includes non-perishable food items, as well as milk and meat. The food bank also picks up produce boxes from the Montana Food Bank Network in Missoula.

Part of the concern from the food bank is related to supply chain issues that grocery stores have been dealing with. Albert said that those issues have a compounding effect on the food bank because it lessens the amount of donations the food bank receives directly from grocery stores. In what Albert called “rescue pick-up,” the food bank visits grocery stores every morning to collect items nearing expiration. With lower donations from grocery stores, the food bank is more dependent on monetary contributions and public donations.

As for what’s driving the heightened demand, Albert put forward several possible factors, the first being another wave of disease sweeping through the community as the omicron variant of COVID-19 spreads. From the food bank’s perspective it means that people are losing out on working hours. COVID-19 can cut into working hours due to illness, exposure quarantine, isolation, or increased caregiving needs. It has also created problems with food distribution times at the food bank, and Albert said there is a need for more volunteers.

Inflation, the rising cost of groceries, and increased gas prices have also sent a greater number of people in search of assistance from the food bank, according to Albert. She added that housing prices in the Flathead Valley are also putting more people in a situation where they need food-bank assistance.

NVFB doesn’t have eligibility requirements for people to receive a food box, and Albert said it’s a no judgment situation. “We do not ask for any income verification. We have a very simple intake form that asks for some general demographic information,” she said. “Food is a basic need. For somebody to go hungry to bed at night is really a struggle. We’re seeing a lot of our neighbors. That’s why we try to be welcoming, and kind and offer other resources.”

The NVFB’s FEED LOVE food drive starts on Feb. 1 and continues through Feb. 14. The drive is aimed at drumming up people’s winter favorites in the form of non-perishable, hardy foods like soups, stews, pasta and peanut butter. Additionally, the FEED LOVE food drive is also a fundraiser, and people can make monetary donations.

A donation of $100 can pay for a week’s worth of groceries for a family of between three and four people, according to Albert.

“This is especially important right now,” she said. “We’re spending more money on our purchased food and currently we also need to purchase more food due to supply chain issues and less donations.”

Alongside its distribution in Whitefish, NVFB also has mobile pantries in Trego, Olney and Essex, offers senior deliveries, and also transports food through a pantry delivery program that connects the food bank to rural pantries in Browning, the Yaak, Libby, Troy and Eureka.

Last year the food bank brought in 5,000 pounds of food and $20,000 in donations from FEED LOVE. The food bank has a large collection box outside, and also has 27 locations around Whitefish where people can drop off donations. Those locations are marked by a FEED LOVE sign, and include grocery stores, restaurants and cafes.