MISSOULA — The start of the COVID-19 pandemic a year ago left Montana's food banks and pantries scrambling for ideas -- and that forced adaptability turned into positive change to help the hungry.
While the lockdown sent shockwaves through every aspect of our lives, in those first weeks some of the biggest uncertainty was over the economic turmoil, and how to keep Montanans fed. That led to more innovation than the hunger programs have ever seen.
“It was within a couple of days. And we did not have any agency that shut down or was unable to serve all the clients that came to them. So adaptability and persistence really paid off for all of them, so that was the first thing that we saw," explained Montana Food Bank Network CEO Gayle Carlson.
"We also saw too, that many of them modified their models as to how they were doing those distributions. They may have come in for client choice. And now they're doing the grab-and-go models, and we're even seeing some of their pre-ordering and picking up later, in-home deliveries, a lot more mobile food pantries. So we think a lot of that is probably going to stay in place for the future," Carlson added.
The pandemic crisis has also amplified public awareness, according to Carlson.
"Oh absolutely. I mean, first of all, the awareness of food insecurity is probably at [an] all-time high. Not just in Montana, but nationwide," Carlson told MTN News." So that has been a lot to our benefit, not just from the standpoint of donors, but people are now more willing to go to pantries and get assistance than where they were before."
It wasn't just clients, old and new; across Montana, food banks saw an outpouring of donations and support, especially from business and community groups.
“A lot of folks that had never volunteered in the food bank arena before were stepping up during the pandemic just because they were either laid off or reduced hours, and they wanted something to do to help," Carlson said. "And now they're realizing how important that role played for them, so we're seeing that a lot more volunteers are coming forward.”
One of the positive trends out of this pandemic period has been the use of more distribution hubs -- the idea that you can place more food centers around Montana to distribute food where it’s needed.
“We did find out that if we were just to strengthen the capacity of some of these larger organizations, they could serve as that last mile distribution for us, either direct to clients or to other pantries, and that has been a huge benefit for us," Carlson said. "Our truckers are still on the road as much as they used to be, but we've got more distributions happening because they are helping out with that last mile."
Today, the Montana Food Bank Network's Missoula warehouse -- like most operations across the state -- still operate under COVID precautions, but Carlson is excited for the volunteer momentum to continue.