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Missoula Food Bank volunteer Karyn Hajek helps box 4-year-old Vincent Cienfuegos’ items Thursday, as volunteer Alvina Reidy waits to help Cienfuegos’ mother with her cart. The food bank plans to build a new facility to replace its crowded location, and will receive a grant from the city’s Brownfields fund to pay for reclamation of the site before construction begins.

Each year, 900 people help the Missoula Food Bank distribute more than 1 million pounds of food to people in need.

"They lend their time and their hands and their help," said Jessica Allred, director of development and advocacy at the food bank.

On Monday, the nonprofit launched an initiative aimed at taking an already robust volunteer effort to another level. An estimated 20 people showed up at a kickoff meeting for the Volunteer Advocate Program to learn more about fixing the root causes of hunger.

The food bank already feeds people – an estimated 106 percent more in 2014 than in 2004. It is also interested in "moving the dial" on hunger, as other communities are doing, Allred said.

"So, this is just one step in developing a community that helps to bring together people around those causal issues," she said.

Another way to put it?

"We believe that food banking should not be a growth industry," said Liz Corey, who reviewed the new program with volunteers and potential advocates.

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At the meeting, Corey said one in six people in Missoula use the food bank. The main reasons include low wages, lack of access, under- or unemployment, having a disability, eligibility requirements for safety net programs, and health care costs.

"Income is the biggest one," Corey said.

Corey is with AmeriCorps VISTA, a national service organization focused on fighting poverty.

Volunteers might advocate for transportation to combat the lack of access to grocery stores, especially in rural areas, she said. They might work on changing eligibility requirements for assistance programs that have strict policies.

One Montanan enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can't earn more than $981 a month, minus some expenses, she said. 

"If you go even a dollar over that for one month, your benefits are lost completely," Corey said.

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The food bank can help because it has the data that tell the story of hunger, Allred said. For instance, the food bank serves more children in July and August than it does in September, because kids get more food at school, including food from the food bank.

"This is our strength, in being able to bring these real-world stories to our representatives, to people in Washington, (D.C.)," Allred said.

A bill pending in committee in the U.S. House of Representatives could benefit people in Montana by offering $30 for food per child each month during the summer, she said. The bill is based on a pilot Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer program, she said, and advocates can talk with elected officials about it.

Toward the end of January, the food bank will host an orientation for volunteer advocates, and the opportunities are flexible, Allred said. The key is to have passionate people involved in the community.

"This is where we really are able to bring the voices of people who are most impacted by the issue of hunger forward," Allred said.

Watch the food bank's Facebook page for details on upcoming volunteer advocate program events.

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Reporter for the Missoulian