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Flavors: Food Insecurity in Our Community Under the Big Sky

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Stella Fong
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From left to right: Lisa Lee, Director of Montana No Kid Hungry, Leslie “Josie” Cliff, Executive Director of Nakota Aniiih Economic Development and Ginny Mermel of Backpack Meals and Teen Pantries of Billings.

Flavors Under the Big Sky shares the stories from the bounty of our region, but not everyone can savor the foods that are available to us here. In this month’s show, Dr. Ginny Mermel, founder and coordinator of Backpack Meals and Teen Pantries in Billings illuminated the challenges of food insecurities for some of the children in Yellowstone County. Lisa Lee, Director of Montana No Kid Hungry shared what issues and solutions are being implemented to resolve the problem in our state. Then Leslie “Josie” Cliff, Executive Director of Nakota Aniiih Economic Development provided the perspective of what is experienced in a smaller community such as Fort Belknap.

Ginny Mermel: Backpack Meals and Teen Pantries of Billings

“I was very surprise to learn the extent of childhood hunger,” Mermel said. “We call it food insecurity these days because it is more of a spectrum you may no necessarily be truly without food, but you may be filling up on very inexpensive low-calorie foods that aren’t nourishing the child for proper growth and development.”

When Mermel was asked by the school district to be a part of the newly formed health advisory council in 2006, she shared, “I quickly learned that about 24% of the kids in our school district at that time relied on free or reduced cost school meals.” Then in 2020, the number rose to just under 40% according to Mermel. People employed in low income earning jobs, “may be working harder than people earning twice as much but they aren’t earning enough to cover the cost of living.”

“The Backpack Meals and Teen Pantries programs are to meet the needs of the children that are in the free and reduced meal programs who may not be getting enough food on weekends and school holidays.”

Mermel mostly purchases food from the Montana Food Bank network and personally goes to the grocery store to buy items. “I do fund raising and wonderful community members raise funds n their own like the Yellowstone Rim Runners. They donate food from their Run! Turkey Run! Annual event.”

The food is stored in a warehouse and “my husband and I go in at least once a week” and Mermel and her husband check on the orders from the schools.

“The Backpack Meal program is a convenient way to send food home, prepacked ready to eat, shelf stable foods. We send it home with elementary school kids, and for the last three years, we’ve also sent food home for the children in the Rimrock Learning Center Preschool Program.” The food is usually in containers that can be easily opened by the children and can be eaten by themselves.

During the lunch hours on Thursday or Friday, “trusted staff members or school volunteers put backpack meals into the backpack of the child that needs the meals.”

For the older children, since 2011, “we have had pantries in the middle schools and high schools that have a selection of shelf stable food.” Mermel pointed out that often times the children may not have a functioning kitchen or even the equipment at home to cook.

“About 100 to 200 teens and tweens use the pantries each week, and the Backpack Meals program is currently feeding about 225 to 265.” The number fluctuates depending on whether there is a holiday during that week.

With the challenges of the COVID pandemic, Mermel encouraged people to “really think about supporting some of the basic efforts to have more local food in our community so some of the disruptions of the supply chains that have occurred would not be as difficult for us to overcome if we had more locally grown food. It could less expensive and certainly would be less taxing on the ecology.”

Lisa Lee: Montana No Kid Hungry

From the state level, Lisa Lee, Director of Montana No Kid Hungry shared, “The current food insecurity date sourced through the USDA showed a slight increase in households with children.” Before COVID, childhood food insecurity was 15.9% and rose to 17% or 1 in six kids during the pandemic.

The numbers were expected to be higher, but Lee said, “Schools right now will continue to serve free meals to all kids until the end of the school year. We don’t know if waivers will be applied to the summer meal program yet, to make it easier to access food for more families. A lot of programs have stepped up to better meet the food security needs in their communities.”

On February 24, Lee organizing a ZOOM meeting entitled, Riding the Wave of Hope - Ending Childhood Hunger in Montana with the Montana Partnership to End Childhood Hunger (MTPECH), “a statewide group of almost 20 members and 20 work groups” including members from health and business sectors, education, public and private food programs to faith-based groups. The mission of the group “strengthens families and communities by securing equitable access to healthy food, activating collaboration between diverse stakeholders, increasing education, and advocating for sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty in our state.”

From 10 a.m. to noon, the gathering will hear from eleven different projects that present research and innovative solutions to feeding communities from food access to integrating nutrition security into healthcare to systemic approaches to solving hunger for good.

Lee is optimistic about MTPECH’s work and this gathering. “MTPECH will continue to provide opportunities to learn more, encourage collaboration and share valuable resources and training.” The ultimate goal is to “move the work forward to close this hunger gap.”

Leslie “Josie” Cliff: Nakota Aniiih Economic Development

The Fort Belknap Reservation Is homeland to the Gros Ventre (Aanii) and the Assiniboine (Nakota) Tribes. The reservation, located 40 miles south of the Canadian border and 20 miles north of the Missouri River has a population of 6,000 people according to Leslie “Josie” Cliff, Executive Director of Nakota Aiiih Economic Development.

“Fort Belknap is located in a food desert. The NADC (Native American Development Council) along with other community partners provide support to increase food security,” Cliff shared. Up until five years ago when the Red Paint Creek Trading Post and Pantry opened, a gas station convenience store near the northern end of the reservation provided the most accessible food for the community. “People had to travel 90 miiles round trip just to buy groceries. They would trave to Harlem or Malta, some even went all the way to Havre, to Great Falls and Billings. So that was the reality for years, having to take coolers and freezer bags.”

The Pantry provides boxes of staples every two weeks according to Cliff. In the meantime, the commercial kitchen has not been utilized to its full capacity. Cliff believes, the facility can be used for cooking classes and for food entrepreneurs to create indigenous products.

In 2014, the Lodgepole community garden began and these days, there are now four total community gardens. Cliff said of food sovereignty coordinator, Randy Feder, “She’s amazing. She’s the one who brings all the people together. Our organization along with Fort Belknap and with MSU extension work with American Prairie Reserve and other tribal programs on Fort Belknap to increase food security.”

In the summer, a youth garden mentor program employees local youth, “teaching them everything there is to know about gardening.” Cliff finds it value in “investing in the youth.”

With the efforts of Ginny Mermel, Lisa Lee and Leslie “Josie” Cliff along with MTPECH there may be a time in the future when the issue of hunger will be solved for good.

Stella Fong shares her personal love of food and wine through her cooking classes and wine seminars as well as through her contributions to Yellowstone Valley Woman, and Last Best News and The Last Best Plates blogs. Her first book, Historic Restaurants of Billings hit the shelves in November of 2015 with Billings Food available in the summer of 2016. After receiving her Certified Wine Professional certification from the Culinary Institute of America with the assistance of a Robert Parker Scholarship for continuing studies, she has taught the Wine Studies programs for Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival since 2008. She has instructed on the West Coast for cooking schools such as Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s Cellars, and Gelsons, and in Billings, at the Billings Depot, Copper Colander, Wellness Center, the YMCA and the YWCA. Locally she has collaborated with Raghavan Iyer and Christy Rost in teaching classes.