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In a nutshell: Looking forward to what’s cooking this year

by Sophie Albert
| January 17, 2024 12:00 AM

This January marks my three-year anniversary at North Valley Food Bank. I have to pause with the daily hustle and bustle, to see all of our accomplishments and think of the many meaningful connections built during this time. 

From 2021 to 2023, our food bank visits have more than doubled to almost 20,000 annually. During the same time period, more than 2,200 new families have sought assistance at the food bank for the first time. Last year, a total of 4,400 households received healthy, nutritious food at our food bank. 

To be able to respond to the need, our organizational structure and building have changed entirely. During my first few months, we built an extension to store more food. If we had a crystal ball, our expansion would have included an even bigger warehouse and cold-storage space, the subsequent need has been so great. 

The remodel also helped us move to a choice-model grocery store. In which we expanded opening hours and continuously refined our services and strategies to ensure we have as much fresh, healthy food available as possible.

 In 2023, we were awarded a multi-year $155,000 Local Food Purchasing Assistance Grant by the Montana Department of Agriculture to collaborate with Land to Hand MT and FAST Blackfeet to purchase fresh food for our customers from under-served producers in the Blackfeet Nation and Flathead County. 

This year, we will further refine our food procurement and community-based food procurement strategy to ensure both a stable budget as well as access to fresh food for all.

In spring of 2020, North Valley Food Bank started its mobile pantries in Trego, Olney and Essex. In December of the same year, Lauren, our director of operations, and Jessy, our former executive director, jumped in to help other rural communities in Lincoln County with an emergency holiday food delivery. 

Three years later, we developed logistically efficient ways to move large quantities of food and established a close partnership with the Montana Food Bank Network. 

We have grown to become a food hub for Northwest Montana and run a regular rural pantry delivery program through which we delivered more than 220,000 pounds of food in 2023. We are proud to address food insecurity more equitably and collaboratively. 

In 2024, we plan to conduct a capacity assessment with our rural pantry partners and mobile pantry sites to see what sustainable support for the future can look like. At the same time, the Trego, Fortine, Stryker community hall, our partner organization in Trego, is developing plans for a remodel to potentially host a satellite pantry. 

In other exciting news, our community kitchen was completed in early 2023 and we launched our culinary programs with samples and meal kits for our customers. With Rachael, our culinary arts manager, on board, we will start more batch processing and ensure that we’ll make the best out of all the rescue food arriving at the food bank. 

Imagine pallets of bananas, far too many for our customers to bring home, turned not only into banana bread but many other creative dishes, rather than being composted. Rachael’s initial delicacies included Jamaican banana ketchup and carrot-banana soup. 

In the summer, we plan to launch our shared community kitchen and hope to rent out the commercial kitchen space to small businesses — a program highly desired by our community. Finally, we’ll grow our culinary volunteer force, start offering ServSafe food safety training, and offer additional kids and family programming. 

Our culinary adventures are what I am most excited about in 2024. At our core, we continue to be June’s food bank ensuring that everyone is welcome! It was one of her dreams to have a fully functioning kitchen and we hope that we’re making her proud.

Sophie Albert is executive director of the North Valley Food Bank in Whitefish.