Flathead Food Bank, Other Nonprofits Report Record Demand from Families Seeking Thanksgiving Food Distributions

As the holiday season commences, food banks, pantries and kitchens ask the community for donations and volunteerism

By Anusha Mathur
Turkeys in a freezer at North Valley Food Bank in Whitefish on Nov. 19, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

This past week was one of the busiest of the year for Flathead Valley food banks and community centers, as thousands of families seek help to put Thanksgiving dinner on the table. The holiday season often marks a stressful period for food-insecure individuals and families, with societal expectations of large meals on holidays. Nonprofits seek additional support from the larger Flathead community to help ease this burden – in the form of donations and volunteers.

Flathead Food Bank hosted its annual Thanksgiving Curbside Distribution on Friday Nov. 17, the largest drive in the valley. Chris Sidmore, executive director of the Flathead Food Bank, said that the bank received over 800 registrations, which amounts to feeding over 2,500 individuals.

“I got here at 6:30 in the morning and I thought I was going to be the first guy here, and there were people already lined up down the block, wrapped all the way around our building as far as I could see,” Sidmore said. “To be honest, it almost brought tears to my eyes because our clients are just amazing. There’s a story, a person, behind every single one of those numbers; they’re all different and heartbreaking and also inspiring.”

Kelly Hamilton loads bags of food into a car at the Flathead Food Bank on March 19, 2020. The Flathead Food Bank provides bags of food via curbside pickup only to reduce chances of transmission of novel coronavirus. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The distribution boxes contained turkeys, stuffing, pumpkins, potatoes, and gravy to help recipients assemble Thanksgiving dinner. Flathead Food Bank also partnered with other nonprofits, like Toys for Tots to hand out small gifts to families with children and the Samaritan House to support homeless clients. Sidmore added that many locals, including a group from Glacier Bank and a preschool class, came to volunteer and donate.

“There’s never really that competition between nonprofits here in the Valley,” Sidmore said. “It’s just people loving on people. Our clients are thankful, then the volunteers are like, thanks for letting us be part of this. Talk about a team effort.”

Matt Bertoia, Flathead Food Bank development manager, described the event as a “constant flow of people” coming to the drive-thru to receive food. He said that many recipients were frequent visitors to the bank, but others signed up for the first time, citing the expectations of putting on a Thanksgiving feast as a financial strain.

“A lot of them just sign up specifically for this and don’t really request our help for any day besides this,” Bertoia said. “Regardless, it was very heartwarming to see the community come together like this, between the volunteers and the people signing up.”

A town over, the Columbia Falls Food Bank has also been serving the community, putting together Thanksgiving baskets with turkeys, trimmings, jelly, potatoes, yams, soup, green beans, and more. During its first two giveaways last Monday and Tuesday, the food bank gave away 60 baskets. They anticipate similar interest this week.

Jan VonLindern, co-manager of the Columbia Falls Food Bank, said the organization has always consistently served singles, couples, and families, but she has noticed a growing number of seniors signing up for Thanksgiving baskets in recent years.

“I’ve been doing this for 38 years and we never used to have that many seniors,” VonLindern said. “Some of the people who come in are living strictly on Social Security and with the price of groceries, gas, extra insurance, I just don’t think they can make it anymore.”

A food box at the Flathead Food Bank on Dec. 18, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

VonLindern said that community support has been the backbone of Columbia Falls Food Bank’s operation. This week, the bank hit their goal of raising $15,000 in donations from September through November. This money will be matched by the Town Pump, totaling to $30,000. She added that many local businesses are donating turkey and hams ahead of the bank’s Christmas giveaway.

“It was a very awesome feeling, just to know that the community has supported you enough to make sure that you have that $15,000 so that you can be a match,” VonLindern said.

Cinnamon Davis-Hall, community outreach director for the NW Montana Veterans Food Pantry, said the pantry gives out monthly food boxes to clients. Each client can also choose to receive one additional holiday box, either for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

“Some people might be single or a couple, but they’re going to have their whole family for Thanksgiving or for Christmas,” Davis-Hall said. “So, there’s now 12 people they’re feeding dinner to, and we want to make sure that all of them get a turkey on their plate so they can feel the normalcy of having a holiday.”

The pantry relies on donations from community members to get the food and items needed for their event. Last week, a local boy scout troop volunteered to put the boxes together and arrange the holiday gifts.

“So far, for Thanksgiving, we have 89 people signed up to get a Thanksgiving food box,” Davis-Hall said. “When they get that food box they get to come upstairs to ‘Santa’s Workshop’ to pick up a Christmas gift for themselves and their family.”

Looking ahead to December, Community Kitchen – Feeding the Flathead, organizes hot meals, including a feast on Christmas Day.

“We don’t ask anybody to sign in or anything,” Community Kitchen President B. Bradford Fenchak said. “If you’re poor and you find yourself needing any sort of help, you often have to stand in line or get online and give out all your information repeatedly. Many of us on the board have experienced that and we want to be a respite and a haven for people where they can go and be safe and comfortable and warm.

Fenchak said their biggest donation needs are winter clothes like socks and gloves, foods like pumpkin pies, fresh fruits, and vegetables, as well as decorations and centerpieces for tables.

Other banks and pantries also have special meals and distributions coming up, including the Flathead Food Bank’s Dec. 15 Christmas handout. Sidmore encourages those interested in receiving food at this event to sign up in advance, at the bank or by phone. He added that for community members looking to help during this time of year, at any food bank or pantry, in general, the biggest needs are fiscal donations, food donations, and manpower.

“As far as donations go, if people can reach out and ask what we need it’s always best because it changes as we receive items,” Sidmore said. “And we can never get enough volunteers.”

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