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Program delivers food to elderly Bitterroot folks with little money

STEVENSVILLE - When volunteers from the food bank in Stevensville offered to put away the food they delivered to Jessie Stanley at her small, pale-green house near downtown Friday, she said, "Oh, no."

All she wanted to do, she said, was look at it for a while.

"I don't believe this," said the 92-year-old Stevensville native. "I get all of this? This is wonderful!"

Stanley, who's retired from her job in the lunchroom at the elementary school, knew that Kathy Belke and Iris Holland were coming with a box Friday morning. But it was so much, she said. Juice, cereal, white rice, American cheese, canned pears, tuna.

"I haven't had farina in I don't know how long," she said, delighted. "Thank you so very, very much."

Stanley is active and sharp and has lots of family - 11 great-grandchildren included. She has a big garden and she cooks. But she lives on very little money each month.

Stanley was one of the first six households in Stevensville's Pantry Partners Food Bank delivery program, which made its first rounds Friday. It's a satellite of the Missoula Food Bank and Missoula Aging Services program that began in January in Missoula. Called ROOTS Senior, for Recognizing Other Opportunities to Serve, it brings government commodities food once a month to people 60 and older living just above the poverty line, on no more than $905 a month.

Gene Rishel also was on the route. Crippled by an industrial accident, a car accident and rheumatoid arthritis, he and his dog, Tiffany, live in a small house in Stevensville on $698 disability and $10 of food stamps a month. He can't buy new batteries for his electric wheelchair because they cost $80 each, and it takes two, so he uses his manual chair, and Tiffany, a Chow cross, pulls him. She's strong, he said, even though she's 12 and just had puppies. Her dad lived to be 18.

"She could pull me to Hamilton," he said.

Rishel's truck is broken down, and he can only get to the food bank if a friend gives him a ride or Tiffany pulls him. That works out, he said cheerfully, but if he goes by Tiffany it takes a long time. The delivery, he said, was appreciated.

"There's a lot of good people," he said. "If I just think I need something, it just comes to me."

At Calvin and Nancy Rex's trailer house in the rural hills of the valley's east side, Nancy cried with gratitude for the food.

"Thank you so much," she said. "You've been so kind to us."

No one is paid to work at Pantry Partners Food Bank, but rewards are plenty, said Holland, a lifelong Bitterrooter who's the volunteer coordinator. Belke, chairwoman of the board, a five-year Stevensville resident and a flight attendant for Delta Airlines, finds her perspective readjusted often.

"When you think about what's in your own refrigerator," Belke said, "and then see people cry when you give them two cans of juice …"

In Missoula, ROOTS Senior began with Missoula Food Bank director Cynthia Roney and the energy of two young hunger interns last fall. When they looked at their figures for 1999, they saw that only 13 percent of the year's 10,000 clients were older than 55.

"So we realized there was a tremendously underserved population," Roney said. "They weren't coming into the food bank."

But they and the Aging Services staff knew the need was great.

"If you're 89 years old, and you're making $469 a month, even if you own your own home, what is that going to bring you?" Roney said. "After you pay your heating bill, and your telephone, and your taxes, there's just not much left over for food."

Some of the people were without transportation, they learned, and some were too embarrassed to ask for charity at the Food Bank. ROOTS Senior takes care of both those barriers. The program uses volunteer drivers from Missoula Aging Services and commodities food that comes once a month from Helena from the state's Commodities Supplemental Food Program.

The food arrives on the third Tuesday or Wednesday of the month in Missoula, where volunteers package it into a grocery bag and a box for each household. It's delivered Thursdays to the clients and now to the Lolo Fire Station, where Belke and Holland picked it up for delivery Friday morning. Next month, the Hamilton food bank, Haven House, also will start a satellite program.

ROOTS Senior started with 168 households in Missoula in January and has grown each month, to 209 in April. The average household income of the participants is $683.04 a month.

Roney, who delivers to Clinton, East Missoula and Potomac on her way home to Potomac, said that for some isolated, rural, older people, the human contact is almost as important as the food.

"I have never met a group of more grateful people," she said. "We get these little, old ladies who call after the delivery and say, 'This is so wonderful. Thank you so much.' "

At Pantry Partners, 398 volunteers last year distributed 1,165 food boxes to 3,972 clients. They don't ask people their incomes, but they know there's need among older people. When Belke read a Missoulian story about ROOTS Senior in January, she called Roney because she knew there was a need.

"Their Social Security is not enough," Holland said. "Jessie is all by herself. It's not on a card or anything. We just know she needs it. She pays her taxes, she pays her utilities. It's not enough. She worked all her life."

Stevensville and the food bank are small, so people's situations are known. Holland and volunteer Jean Jensen have known each other since they were pupils at Lone Rock grade school.

"Between the two of us," Holland said, "we know everybody."

When Holland was growing up, her parents were raising 11 children on 60 acres. They milked cows, had a big garden and bartered eggs from their chickens. Her eighth-grade class at Lone Rock in 1946 had 13 pupils. Now, the Bitterroot Valley is jammed with people living on small pieces of land earning low or no wages.

"It's definitely a different kind of poverty," she said.

"It's overcrowded, so there's less for everybody," she said. "Too many of them have come here on the shirttails of relatives, thinking there would be jobs. But there's not jobs, and there's not housing."

When Pantry Partners started in 1989, it served 30 people its first year. Now, a line forms when it's open, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 3 p.m.

Holland guesses that not everybody who needs food help in the Bitterroot gets it.

"I'm going to guess, and I think I'm pretty close, that one in 20 families is going without," she said.

Many more than six households qualify for ROOTS Senior, and Pantry Partners wants to expand the monthly route. And Belke and the volunteers also are bent toward finding a new home for the food bank in a building, they hope, they own.

Now, they use every bit of their 630 square feet on an alley off Main Street between Third and Fourth streets in downtown Stevensville behind a florist's shop, where they rent for $325 a month.

"We have one chair," Belke said. "And when we're filling boxes, we get really cramped."

Clients at the food bank have no privacy and no place to get out of the weather while they wait.

Belke believes that if they work hard, they can raise $200,000 and has started a fledgling building fund. Their annual budget is not large - last year, $32,761 - but neither are the expenses. Last year, they were $18,208.

Most Bitterrooters are not well-to-do, she said, but they are generous.

"People will walk in and say, 'I'd like to help you,' " she said. "And they'll give you a check, and they'll walk away, and you'll see it's $500. You wouldn't believe it."

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

If you're interested

To reach Pantry Partners Food Bank, call 777-4682. To contribute, send donations to Pantry Partners, P.O. Box 806. Stevensville, MT 59870. Food can be donated to the food bank at 302 1/2 Main St.

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