MLK Jr. food drive 01

Kat Cowley, University of Montana Food Pantry student coordinator, packs shelves with donated nonperishable food items at the UM Food Pantry on Tuesday. UM is hosting the MLK Jr. Food Drive from Jan. 13 through Jan. 20 to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

As University of Montana students returned to campus this week, they may have seen bins collecting canned and boxed food.

The bins are part of the Missoula Martin Luther King Jr. Day Planning Committee’s MLK Day Food Drive, organized by Eric Vorkoeper, volunteer programs manager for UM’s Office of Civic Engagement.

As he helped the city plan its annual Martin Luther King Jr. day celebration, he said, “I thought it was really important to talk about diversity in a way people really relate to in Montana.”

Montana is one of the nation’s least racially diverse states, but Vorkoeper said that diversity is “not just a racial thing. It encompasses a lot of different areas” — including socioeconomic challenges.

According to nonprofit group Feeding America, 13% of Missoula County residents were “food insecure” in 2017. On campus, the UM Food Pantry opened in February 2019 and serves about 60 clients a month, estimated student coordinator Kat Cowley.

To help meet these needs, Vorkoeper and student volunteers have set out donation bins at the Davidson Honors College, the University Center and at St. Anthony Parish. They also plan to put them out at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day events planned around the city this coming weekend. Items collected on-campus will be donated to the UM Food Pantry. Off-campus donations will go to the Missoula Food Bank & Community Center.

The food drive had just started Monday, so it’s too early to gauge its impact. “I would love like 200, 300 pounds, but also any food at all would be great,” Cowley said.

“I’m going to be happy with anything, pretty much,” said Vorkoeper. “Really, it’s just a great way to highlight economic justice and hunger and socioeconomic diversity.

“I would like to expand this next year and get more people involved,” he added. “This is kind of a trial run.”

 The food drive will run through the weekend. To learn more about the food drive and Missoula’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration, visit missoulamlkday.com.

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