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High prices, economy challenge Montana Food Bank Network
Jason Barker, a mechanic with Interstate Power Systems in Missoula, works on the Montana Food Bank Network's aging long-haul transport truck last week. The 14-year-old Freightliner, which broke down last week near St. Regis, has more than 1.6 million miles on it and is plagued with frequent repairs.
Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

Last year, Peggy Grimes and the Montana Food Bank Network paid about $40,000 to fuel the delivery trucks that travel to food charities around the state.

This year, the bill is going to be at least twice as much, and it could be higher if the price of oil continues its stratospheric climb.

In fact, the Missoula-based network, which delivers food to about 200 charity food organizations around the state, already has been forced to revise its budget as the price of diesel skyrockets.

"It's gone from 15 percent of our budget to 30 percent," executive director Grimes said. "It's disastrous in a lot of ways, but it's also a sign of a much larger problem."

Gas is simply the moving force behind a trickle-down mess of trouble, what the Missoula Food Bank's Nick Roberts calls a "perfect storm."

"And I mean perfect in the worst possible way," he said.

Expensive fuel means the poor become poorer. Means food - because it must be transported - becomes more expensive. Means people are being forced to decide between transportation - possibly to a low-paying job - and buying food.

Worse, inflation is easily outstripping wage growth, meaning people who ordinarily wouldn't need food banks need them now.

"We are seeing people who've never been to a food bank before, but now they have nowhere else to turn," said Ann Waickman, director of Helena Food Share.

Expensive fuel also means companies that once donated lots of food are donating less, as they look for ways to keep their budgets in line.

"It's a whole spectrum of problems," Grimes said. "Food donations are down, from individuals and companies. We're buying more food than ever, and it's costing us more than ever."

The network is even having to buy pasta, a staple that was once donated in ample supply. And don't even get Grimes started about that other staple, rice.

"Nobody can get rice," she said flatly.

Roberts said staples - rice, dry beans, pasta - have been increasingly hard to find. The Missoula Food Bank has seen a 55 percent increase in price for those items in one year, forcing it to find new suppliers.

"We found a source in Minnesota where we can pay last year's prices, but we have to buy six months' worth," Roberts said. "And we don't have the space for that, so now we're trying to find more warehouse space."

Which, of course, costs money.

The Montana Food Bank Network, based in Missoula, provides food to charities around the state. Unlike similar umbrella groups located in large cities, the Montana network spans a huge territory. That means one thing - a ton of driving.

"Our trucks travel over 100,000 miles a year, and that's become very, very expensive," Grimes said.

It's tough enough to fill the tank when it costs $50 for a small car. But try filling up a semi with diesel.

"It used to cost about $500 to fill a truck, but now it's $1,000," said Grimes. "Diesel at $4.50 a gallon is really eating us up."

The Food Bank Network and the Montana charities it serves are hardly alone. Food pantries across the country are suffering, and some are having to use their money to buy food because it's cheaper than going to pick it up.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository has spent

$3 million on food compared to $200,000 in 2002, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune.

Nationwide, food donations are at a four-year low, and Grimes said donations are also down in Montana.

"That forces us into the market to buy nutritional foods, and that's getting harder and harder to do and still get a bang for the buck," Grimes said.

The recently passed federal farm bill will provide some additional money for food banks this year, Grimes said, but it's not likely to offset the huge increase in fuel costs.

Grimes is also hoping that changes in the food stamp program will encourage more people to apply.

"That really helps people stabilize their food needs and they don't need to be quite as reliant on our system, either," she said.

The network's other problem isn't really a problem as much as an infrastructure issue.

"Right now, so many of our donations are fresh or frozen food, and we just don't have the storage for all of that," Grimes said. "That's something we're trying to build more of so we can store that food and make better use of it over time."

Although the fuel costs are drawing the most attention, the trickle-down problems are just as significant and threaten every food charity in the state.

"We don't do so much driving, but most of the problems we're looking at are related to fuel costs in some way," said the Missoula Food Bank's Roberts. "Everything is affected. More clients with more problems. More suppliers with more problems. All directly related to fuel costs."

Roberts said it's become both commonplace and disheartening to hear the stories from his clientele.

"So many people describe the same thing, trying to decide whether to drive to their job to make money for food, or save money by not driving and suffering because it," he said. "It's heartbreaking."

In Helena, Waickman said her pantry can't afford some of the short trips it used to routinely make for so-called "grocery rescues."

"We still do pickups where there's a significant amount of food, but we've cut down on short trips for small amounts," Waickman said. "That makes us dependent on others to bring us more food, and people have been incredible at that. Still, it's just another piece of a very large problem."

Even programs that are buffered from high fuel costs have difficulties. Jim Nolan runs a state program that delivers federally bought food to all of Montana's Indian reservations.

"The feds have been good about covering those costs, but they're struggling to buy food because the prices are so much higher than they used to be," said Nolan, who works in the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Food distribution has long been a complex puzzle with many small, hard-to-fit pieces. Now it seems no matter how those pieces are fitted together, they no longer add up to a whole.

"I really have no idea what the answer is, and it's a hell of a pickle we've found ourselves in," Nolan said. "And it's worse because the people who are most affected are the people who can least afford it."

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or at mmoore@missoulian.com.

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