Arlee community group distributes food, supplies for COVID-19 relief
ARLEE – Towers of boxes filled with produce and canned goods were at the former Hangin’ Art Gallery last Friday afternoon.
Casey Barrows, a member of the Arlee Community Development Corporation and a coordinator of the program, said the food distribution program provides essential support to the community.
Volunteers wheeled carts piled with meat, squash and pasta to cars waiting in the parking lot. Volunteers also passed out masks, household cleaning supplies and pet food.
Each Friday, community members can receive boxes of fresh, local fruits and vegetables and nonperishable food directly to their cars – no questions asked.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, Arlee residents who didn’t have enough food to eat could get supplemental food from the local food pantry; however, when the pandemic arrived, elderly volunteers weren’t able to continue to work with the program due to health risks, but at the same time, the financial repercussions of the pandemic were spreading through the community and the need for food increased.
The Arlee Community Development Corporation’s Food Sovereignty committee has been focusing on finding long-term solutions to food insecurity in the area for years, and Barrows said it made sense for the CDC to absorb the food pantry’s programs.
In mid-May, the group started distributing produce each week. The food sovereignty committee received grant funding to start the project and has since partnered with the Montana Food Bank Network and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program, coordinated by the Lake County Community Development Corporation, to provide more fresh produce and food.
Barrows said the program has revealed just how many families in the area don’t have the resources to get the food they and their families need. “It’s an eye opener to see how many people are in need,” Barrows said.
Program attendance peaked a few weeks ago when the group distributed food to 53 households, feeding 260 individuals. Barrows said the group wants to make sure everyone in the area has the food they need to be healthy and fulfilled. “Hunger needs to be handled,” he said.
The local produce comes from regional farms involved in the Western Montana Growers Cooperative. The group purchases food weekly from Rod’s Harvest Foods in St. Ignatius and receives donations from the Mission Valley Food Pantry in St. Ignatius. A local anonymous donor has donated nonperishables to the effort. Barrows plans to start a community food drive soon to supplement the grant funded and donated food the group has relied on.
According to Barrows, people appreciate the fresh produce, which is often unavailable from food pantries. A group of volunteers work each week to pack and distribute the boxes and coordinate the program.
Melaia Matt of Arlee distributed personal protective equipment and household cleaning supplies. Matt, who will start her first year at Salish Kootenai College this fall, said other volunteers told her about the program. She decided to help out and even recruited her brother to help with the heavy lifting during distribution. “I just want to help people,” Matt said. “It’s as simple as that.”
One community member who picked up supplies told volunteers the items were making a big difference in Arlee. “You don’t know what this means to people living on fixed incomes, especially elders,” she said.
Barrows said the group is already thinking of how they can continue to serve the community in some capacity after the immediate crisis of the pandemic passes. He said the weekly drive-through food distribution would continue “as long as necessary.”
Barrows said because the pandemic has caused hardship for so many local families, the group is bypassing formal applications for aid. Everyone who comes to the drive through and is in need is given food.
“This is an emergency. We’re going to give you food for your whole family, no questions asked,” he said.