The pandemic created a spike in the number of the Montanans who need food assistance, and the volume of people who needed it for the first time.
“The number of people receiving food assistance for the first time after the COVID crisis was pretty astounding,” said Lorriane Burhop, chief policy officer of the Montana Food Bank Network, which provides food to pantries around the state. Last year, one of every 10 Montanans received help from a pantry in the Montana Food Bank Network.
More than 40% of respondents to a survey said they had never sought that help before, according to a new report, “Voices of Montana: Stories of Hunger and Hope,” released this week by the network.
The number of Montanans who are at risk of food insecurity could jump 29% to 141,000 people for the 2020 year, based on national employment and poverty data.
“Food insecurity” indicates that people will face “reduced quality, variety and desirability of their diet due to lack of money or other resources for food.” In comparison, “very low food security” means they “must reduce food intake or skip meals.”
From mid-June to the end of July, the network joined up with Feeding America, a nationwide organization, on a survey. In Montana, they gleaned 917 responses from 30 counties through food pantries, other programs and clients, in a self-selected survey. Since it’s self-selected, it’s meant to provide a snapshot and is not statistically representative of all clients at pantries, the report notes.
The sudden onset of the pandemic was reflected in people's responses.
“We really heard consistently from our food pantries across the state that many of the folks they were serving were new faces — people who never had to turn to the food pantry before,” Burhop said.
Sixteen percent of respondents said the day of the survey was their first day getting food assistance. In comparison, that figure was 9% in a 2018 survey.
The report noted that 70% of adults lost income or were furloughed during the pandemic. That reveals “how many people we have across who are living in a situation where things seems stable — they’re making ends meet — but the loss of just one or two paychecks all of a sudden pushes those households into crisis, and they need to turn to a local food pantry for help,” she said.
The data also indicate that needs rose sharply in 2020 after a gradual improvement from the Great Recession peak around 2011.
“The numbers were moving in the right direction, and seemingly overnight in March and April, we just saw the need skyrocket at food pantries across the state,” she said.
Just over 40% of respondents were at least 60 years old, and about 57% were 18 to 59. Almost half of households said they had a high-risk member, and about 64% included a senior. Nearly 80% said they thought it would be more difficult to make ends meet in the three months ahead because of the pandemic.
The sudden spike and the public health issues were challenging on the emergency food system. Pantries had to rethink their distribution methods for safety reasons. There was uncertainty regarding spikes in demand and the stresses on the production system. In the spring, the volume of donations from stores through Grocery Rescue fell as shoppers stockpiled goods, but has since recovered.
Burhop said that early in the pandemic, the U.S. Congress moved quickly with relief efforts and strengthening the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to lessen the burdens on local food pantries. (For every meal provided by a local pantry, SNAP provides nine.)
Heading into the new year, she said Congress needs to provide “comprehensive and meaningful relief at the federal level, and for our state to implement those programs and options whenever they’re available.”
The pandemic has shown that “the emergency food pantry system, on its own in a regular year, isn’t able to meet the need for food assistance without a strong federal response as well, and even more so in a time of crisis, we need Congress to continue playing a role” in programs such as SNAP and meals for schools and seniors.
While the state Legislature is in session, Burhop said the network will be “opposing any efforts to cut or weaken access to SNAP benefits. SNAP is always our most important anti-hunger program, but particularly during a time of crisis and heightened hunger across the state, we need our state lawmakers to protect access to SNAP.” They will also be urging support for Double SNAP Dollars, allowing clients to buy food at farmers markets and receive bonus funding to purchase fruits and vegetables, helping not only clients but local producers, she said.