From time to time, Hellgate High School senior Jacob Butler spent mornings in class being distracted by his grumbling stomach rather than focusing on his schoolwork.

Running to 5 a.m. swim practices last year, Butler would often forget to eat beforehand or pack breakfast for after. During his morning classes, he started not feeling well and losing his drive.

Something clicked.

Butler knew he couldn't be the only one dragging in class after not eating. He started volunteering with Missoula's food banks and was startled to find out how much his community was struggling.

According to the 2014 Hungry in Montana report, nearly 86 percent of Montana households with school-age children reported that their children eat free or reduced-price school lunch; 76 percent reported their children also eat free or reduced-price breakfast. Free and reduced-price school meals are provided to those students whose household is at or below 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty line, respectively.

In Missoula County, 14 percent of children are in poverty, according to the Montana Kids Count's 2015 report. The analysis also found that 41 percent of the county's students were enrolled in a free and reduced-price lunch program in 2014.

"This was a problem that needed fixed," Butler said.

His first food drive last year at Hellgate raised 200 pounds of food. That helped, he said, but he couldn't shake it over the summer and knew he could do more.

His swim team jumped on board, and raised more than 600 pounds of food.

Outstanding, but he wants to expand it even more.

"I went to the USA Swimming convention ... and they were driving home that your local swim club (ours is Montana Swimming), that we really need to push the philanthropy that USA Swimming is doing and how it's making a difference in our community," said Kirby Beierle, Butler's club swim team coach.

Butler and Beierle got to work, planning a statewide effort.

Now, all 14 club swim teams across Montana have joined, marking Montana Swimming's first statewide philanthropy project.

The goal is to raise a ton – 2,000 pounds – of food, which will be distributed to each team's local food bank. At the state swim meet this weekend, they'll find out how much they raised and which team wins the trophy.

"I've learned it's a lot bigger problem than I thought it was," Butler said. "It's an issue that not a lot of people think of, and it's such a big part of our community. I feel like it affects so many parts of ... the way Missoula works that I think it's really important to try and fix. And I'm hoping this food drive will help raise awareness for it."

Beierle said the experience has taught her so much about hunger in Missoula and Montana.

"He (Butler) taught me about food gaps ... where and when kids get food," she said. "In the summer, it's really rough for them, for the kids who get fed at school. Russell School does lunch all summer long (as does Chief Carlo, Franklin and Lowell schools and Missoula Public Library), but there are times they're really hurting for food for Missoulians."

If you want to join the cause, bring non-perishable food items to the Missoula YMCA through Friday. Collection bins are in the lobby next to the front desk.

"It's cool to see him throw himself in there and make a difference," Beierle said.

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