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Aviation workers repack boxes of food in an airplane hangar to support the Montana Food Bank Network. (Photo provided by MFBN)

Promoting Food Security During the Pandemic

Many Montanans are having a harder time getting healthy food because of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Local food pantries saw a dramatic increase in need after the state ordered nonessential businesses to close, says Gayle Carlson, CEO of the Montana Food Bank Network. Some saw their numbers of clients surge by as much as 50%.

“Individuals are in need, especially during this COVID time,” Carlson says.

Food insecurity was one of the key areas targeted by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana’s $1 million COVID-19 Community Collaboration Fund.

MFBN, which receives ongoing support from BCBSMT through its collaboration with Feeding America, was awarded $75,000 from the COVID-19 fund to support its work meeting the needs of Montanans during the crisis.

The network and its affiliate food pantries needed resources and creative solutions to cost and distribution problems created by the pandemic.

MFBN ordinarily buys food in bulk and repacks it in smaller servings at its Missoula headquarters. But shutting down the office meant closing the repacking room, too.

That could have spelled disaster for its Mail-a-Meal program, which provides food to parts of the state with no local food pantry by mailing boxes directly to people’s homes or to a centralized pick-up site.

An unlikely partner stepped in to help. “We worked with a local aviation company that had an empty hangar,” Carlson says. “They packed the boxes using airline personnel who couldn’t keep busy because of COVID.”

The grant from BCBSMT is helping MFBN keep up with demand even as prices for food soar — the cost of peanut butter is up 45% compared to pre-COVID prices, according to MFBN data.

COVID-19 also caused schools to close throughout the state, so kids lost access to nutritious daily meals.

Schools and community organizations pivoted quickly to continue offering food to kids in need, with the support of Montana No Kid Hungry. Montana No Kid Hungry received a $25,000 grant from the BCBSMT fund. The food insecurity-focused nonprofit is passing those funds through grants on to local communities to help implement food service programs.

“Our mission is to provide a boost to organizations who are on the front lines of dealing with this pandemic,” said John Doran, BCBSMT divisional vice president of external affairs. “These partners are the experts in making sure that our children and seniors know where their next meal is coming from.”

A Division of Health Care Service Corporation, a Mutual Legal Reserve Company, an Independent Licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association