Brenda Solórzano, Chief Executive Officer, Headwaters Foundation
Erin Switalski, Program Director, Headwaters Foundation
As a foundation focused on the social and economic barriers to health, food insecurity has always been important to us. According to Feeding America, one in ten people and one in six children face hunger in our state (Feeding America 2020). The Montana Food Bank Network states that more than half of Montana’s counties have areas that are considered food deserts, or “low-income areas where at least 500 people and/or 33 percent of the residents must travel more than ten miles to the nearest supermarket (or 1 mile in urban areas) (Montana Food Bank Network 2020).”
As COVID-19 hit, we began receiving calls and emails from grantees and food security leaders about the increased need for food across the state. Many Montanans suddenly found themselves without a stable source of income, looking to local food pantries, churches, and other service organizations to help feed their families. As the state shut down, grocery stores began to run out of food, and now had nothing to donate to local food banks. In response, our foundation increased our outreach to local and state food leaders, developed an understanding of critical food security issues, and created a rapid response plan to deploy resources into the hands of community leaders who could ensure that hungry families were not left in peril. This process reinforced our commitment to community-led solutions and highlighted a path for key policy and systems-change work for Headwaters Foundation.
Rural Food Access Issues
As we took on this work, we quickly learned that rural communities faced unique food access challenges, which required a different approach to funding. We originally thought that we could make large grants to the statewide networks to serve residents in all counties. We soon learned that the distribution of quality, fresh food would be inequitable under this model. Community contacts on the Flathead Indian Reservation, for example, described getting “what was left on the truck” from statewide distributors, as they were the last stop along a route that served more populated towns first. By the time the truck reached their food bank, there was no more cheese, meat, or vegetables left for their community. All that remained was low-quality processed food in boxes.
To properly support our most vulnerable food pantries, we realized that we could not rely on the commodities being delivered to them by our statewide partners. The foundation made direct grants to 31 local food pantries across our 15-county region.
Hunger in Food Rich Communities
In tackling these issues, we were also struck by the dichotomy of food insecurity and fertile soil in our rural areas. In 2018 Montana ranked second in the nation for acres of land in farms and ranches (United States Department of Agriculture 2018). How could it be that so many people were surrounded by farms, ranches, and soil ripe for growing food, and yet were going hungry? A barrier we quickly identified was public policy. We found that as the pandemic forced many meatpacking plants to close, for example, food banks struggled to obtain meat. Under current policy, local food banks are unable to accept meat directly from ranchers. Despite having a plentiful source of meat in our state, policy prevented it from reaching those who needed it.
To address this challenge, the foundation made grants that would not only support immediate food needs, but also funding that would allow communities to examine their local food systems and identify ways to change the policies and systems leaving people food insecure in the first place. One such grant was made to the COVID-19 response committee of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead Indian Reservation who, among other efforts, sought to create a community garden to begin educating their community on the importance of food sovereignty.
Homegrown Solutions Provide a Roadmap for Food Sovereignty
Community resilience and innovation emerged as strong themes in our work. In late March, Headwaters Foundation heard that one of our small grantees, the Boys & Girls Club, had shifted from their usual programming of after-school and youth programs to feeding the community. Overnight, their educators became volunteer coordinators, chefs, and logistics coordinators. They found vans to deliver food. They went from cooking 110 locally-sourced meals a day to more than 1,200 meals a day.
We then heard about a neighbor-to-neighbor effort to ensure vulnerable people, like older adults, wouldn’t fall through the cracks. A small group of caring community members developed an online community, built from a document with two parts: “I can do it” and “I need.” From delivering groceries, meals, and medication to older adults to running errands for families with young children, this effort relied on volunteers providing what they could to those who needed it.
We quickly recognized that these homegrown efforts were effectively responding to and meeting the needs of their communities. What these efforts needed from us was general operating support to give them the freedom to work, not us dictating solutions through traditional programmatic grants. Headwaters Foundation was proud to do just that and be a supportive partner of these innovative homegrown efforts.
Food Security in Rural Montana Requires an Upstream Approach
What started as a response to the COVID-19 crisis has evolved to become a critical focus for our foundation. As we continue to learn and grow in this work, we have identified two key lessons that will shape future initiatives:
- It is not enough to rely solely on state-level experts. Individual voices must be engaged in developing and driving policy-change solutions.
- Local food pantries want funders to support long-term policy change efforts and they are willing to have funds redirected to make that happen. Food pantries understand that unless they work at this level, their job will never be done. As one leader put it, “I want my organization to go out of business—then we’ve succeeded.”
We are still far from success. Childhood food insecurity in Montana may be as high as 26 percent in 2020; in some rural counties with limited economic opportunity, it could be as high as 41 percent (Feeding America 2020). We know that counties with high populations of American Indians will almost certainly suffer higher rates of food insecurity. As we forge ahead, we are convening funders in our state who are interested in collectively responding to this persistent issue to ensure the needs of our rural communities are met via investment in homegrown and upstream systems change efforts.
About Headwaters Foundation
Headwaters Foundation is a community-driven foundation that believes our neighbors have the answers to the deepest issues facing Western Montana’s children and families. Every day, we work side-by-side with community leaders to guide the region’s resources to improve the well-being of all Montanans, especially those who have not had the chance to be heard. We believe that by discovering solutions together, we can build a healthy and thriving Western Montana.
Feeding America. “Hunger in Montana.” July 22, 2020.
Feeding America. “The Impact of Coronavirus on Food Insecurity.” July 22, 2020.
Montana Food Bank Network. “Hunger in Montana.” July 22, 2020.
United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA NASS). Montana Agricultural Facts 2018. Helena, Montana: USDA NASS, April 2019.