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As food prices spike, Billings Food Bank fills a growing need

Billings Food Bank executive director Sheryle Shandy started noticing red flags this spring.

“I would order the things that we needed traditionally and I’d get two cases back, or one case, or out of stock,” she said.

The food bank normally orders from its wholesale supplier by the palette – about 40 cases. When supplies started drying up, Shandy called her contact there: “I called him up and said, ‘Get your catalogue out and let’s go through everything that has at least a 2-year expiration date, and let’s go shopping.’”

Using a grant, she purchased $200,000 worth of groceries.

“We stocked ourselves up pretty well,” she said. “We were a little ahead of the curve. It just depends on how this shortage goes on.

“It can’t go on indefinitely.”

Shandy says the food bank hasn’t had to dip far into its reserves yet – but that stockpile could come in handy this winter. The latest Consumer Price Index shows the cost of food rose 6.1% over the past 12 months; overall, goods rose 6.8%.

And as the cost of food has gone up, more people are turning to food banks for assistance. Shandy says in addition to her regular customers, the food bank is seeing a lot of new faces.

“We see a lot of generational,” she said. “What is new about this is that we’re seeing so many new people that are even in my age category that have never been through anything like this before.

“And that’s what’s really heart-rending.”

The food bank reports it distributes about 14 million pounds of food annually in Billings and surrounding communities. Shandy says donations have remained steady, despite the increase in food prices, but she has noticed a lack of fresh produce.

“We’re asking from now to year-end at least … to think about us when they’re shopping," she said. "I know produce right now is just remarkably expensive. But we want to make sure that all the families are getting some.”

The Billings Food Bank announced earlier this year it received a federal CARES Act grant for half a million dollars to renovate and expand a former mechanic garage the food bank owns near its current location. Plans include a cafe, outdoor patio, kitchen, restrooms and dressing rooms for special events.

The funds will go toward fixing and insulating the roof so work can continue through the winter; Shandy hopes renovations will be complete this spring.

“We turn 40 in May of next year, and that’s my target,” she said.

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