More food and more fresh food will reach poor people in Montana because of the generosity of actor and philanthropist Paul Newman.

Newman, in partnership with Ford Motor Co., has purchased 14 new trucks for food banks and feeding programs across the nation, and two will come to Montana. In June, the Missoula Food Bank will receive a Ford F-350 cargo van right off the assembly line in Dearborn, Mich. The Montana Food Bank Network, which distributes food to food banks and feeding programs across the state, will receive a 14-foot refrigerated box truck for its Eastern Montana Distribution Center in Miles City.

The gift falls on the Missoula Food Bank like manna from heaven, at a time when demand for food is up about 10 percent from last year, and two new programs are taking off beyond what Food Bank staff expected.

"It's brand-new. And it's custom-designed for us," Director Cynthia Roney said Tuesday. "Obviously, getting a $37,000 vehicle donated is very special to any food organization that's transporting food around."

In eastern Montana, the new Food Bank Network truck will deliver the first fresh and frozen food to the 21 food banks served by the network out of Miles City. The network's 20-foot, unrefrigerated truck travels north to Glasgow and Plentywood and south to Lame Deer. In summer especially, fresh and frozen food is out of the question without a refrigerated truck.

"We'll be able to see a lot more fresh food circulating around Montana," said Food Bank Network Director Peggy Grimes, who works at the network's home base in Missoula. "It's a great thing to know that Paul Newman is donating two trucks into Montana."

Last year, the network distributed 2.5 million pounds of food around the state. Of those, 232,720 were delivered out of Miles City.

In Missoula, the Food Bank will use its new truck in its Food Circle program. The program began rescuing prepared food from the University of Montana Dining Services in December 1998, and a year later acquired a machine that packages the food in plastic in dinner-sized portions. The biggest donors so far have been UM and Pizza Hut. The Food Bank now rescues about 5,000 pounds a month of leftover prepared food that would have gone to the landfill.

As well, the Food Bank picks up fresh, unsold grocery-store food that would go to waste, including produce, dairy products and baked goods. From January through March, it rescued 62,816 pounds of grocery foods, and in April more than 32,000 pounds.

The Food Bank also gives food to other agencies. The Poverello Center, the Joseph Residence, Mountain Home, Missoula Youth Homes, SHARE House, Turning Point and other nonprofit agencies benefit from donated food. Now, the agencies have to pick up the food at the Food Bank on South Third Street West. But the new truck could mean deliveries, Roney said.

"These smaller agencies, they have small staff," she said, "and it's hard for them to get away to pick up food."

Newman is making the donation out of a wish to make a difference in rural hunger. He approached America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief organization and a supplier of food programs around the country, for advice and implementation, said Maurice Weaver, media relations manager at Second Harvest.

"We responded with some various ideas and proposals," Weaver said. "Transportation is the biggest hindrance to delivering food in rural areas."

Newman asked Ford Motor Company to be his partner in the effort, and it is donating half the value of the 14 trucks.

Second Harvest chose the recipients of the trucks by looking at rural areas and their income and dynamics. For instance, a truck is going to New Mexico, where the only food bank is in Albuquerque. Other recipients include Texas, South Dakota and North Dakota, as well as poor rural areas in the Northeast.

"Same as Montana, just huge service areas," Weaver said. "These trucks are going to be a real lifeline for these people."

"Our agencies and our food banks, they're out there feeding people every day in every county in America," he said. "There is a growing need in rural communities."

The official announcement of the donation will be made June 15 when the recipients travel to Dearborn to pick them up. Among them will be Teresa Cowan, director of the Food Circle program at the Missoula Food Bank, and Randi Erickson, a Missoula Food Bank board member and the education coordinator at the Good Food Store in Missoula.

The Good Food Store is donating the gasoline to get the truck back to Montana and donating Erickson's time. She will travel to Dearborn and accompany Cowan on the cross-country drive. The Good Food Store and the Missoula Food Bank have the same goal, Erickson said, of getting quality food to people who need it.

"The Good Food Store has been committed to the Food Bank. The partnership is something we've worked on for a long time," Erickson said. "As a business, we're thankful for the support we receive from the community. So we try to give back."

As Newman's Own food company has expanded its line of organic foods, the Good Food Store has added them to its shelves, so the store is familiar with the company, Erickson said. As a bonus, each truck will come loaded with Newman's Own products.

"It's really just going to improve the flow of food from the Food Bank to the people who need it," Erickson said.

Erickson's and Cowan's trip will be called "On the Road to End Hunger." They'll have programmed cell phones provided by the Craig & Al radio show to check in with regular on-the-air interviews with Missoula's Z-100 radio station. Erickson will draw on her almost-a-degree in journalism to report their progress.

"It's going to be really fun," she said.

Roney welcomes the chance to raise the profile of hunger.

"And we'll be able to do better what we do best," she said, "help build a hunger-free community."

Reporter Ginny Merriam can be reached at 523-5251 or at gmerriam@missoulian.com.

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