HELENA — Advocates say the last year has seen a big spike in people seeking help from Montana food pantries. Now, they’re supporting a proposed new grant program, aimed at creating new partnerships to bring fresh local products to families in need.
“People are really excited about what this could be for our state,” said Lorianne Burhop, chief policy officer for the Montana Food Bank Network.
MFBN is endorsing House Bill 276, sponsored by Rep. Marty Malone, R-Pray. The bill would establish a “Farm to Food Bank” program, in which organizations would serve as “food hubs” – making agreements to purchase Montana-grown food products and distribute them to food pantries in their areas.
The program would apply to fruit, vegetables, meat, legumes, whole grains, eggs, and dairy from Montana farms and ranches, as well as food products with primarily Montana-grown ingredients.
HB 276 would provide $1 million in state funding for the next two years.
“There's a lot of interest; there's a lot of pieces already being set in local communities,” said Burhop. “But what's missing is often the funding. So to have two years of state funding to help get this off the ground – demonstrate what a reality it can be for our state – I think that will help to encourage additional private support, public support, really make this a partnership going forward, to say this is good for Montana.”
Burhop says the need for food pantries initially spiked during the pandemic, then lowered when COVID-related assistance programs took effect. She said the end of those programs, combined with the rise in inflation, has led to another spike. MFBN data shows about 44,000 households used Montana food pantries in November 2022, up from 29,000 in November 2021.
“At this point, the numbers at Montana's food pantries are either at or above where we saw them back in March 2020 – and it's seemingly more sustained at this point,” said Burhop. “It hasn't been just a bump and then back down; it's been month after month those numbers remain high.”
Supporters of HB 276 say it would not only provide much-needed fresh food for those families, but also expand the market for Montana farms and ranches.
“If a farmer has excess fruits and vegetables, they can take them and market them to a local food bank which is nearby, keeps their all their produce in the neighborhood, in the community where it's easier to keep fresh,” said Jasmine Krotkov, a lobbyist for the Montana Farmers Union. “And it's a reliable market for them.”
Krotkov said the bill would bring multiple layers of benefits for rural communities.
"Farm communities in Montana have some of the same struggles as any other rural community, and hunger can be a problem there,” she said. “So it benefits for farmers to have some place to sell their goods, and for them to have some place to access goods that they don't grow on their farms.”
HB 276 is set for a first hearing Tuesday afternoon at 3 p.m., in the House Agriculture Committee.