Hunger is a chronic problem for many families on the Blackfeet Reservation. Grocery stores are few and far between, and the poverty rate is around 40 percent.
Like in any rural area, fresh food especially is expensive. It takes a lot of hours in the car or on the phone to access public assistance programs. But when a severe winter storm blew in around New Year's Eve, the chronic hunger issue became an acute crisis.
“The snow got so deep that people in Heart Butte, the elders, didn't even get fed for two weeks,” Jimmy St. Goddard says.
Eesukyah, who also goes by Jimmy St. Goddard, is a medicine chief from Seville who’s running for chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council this year. He wrote about the need on Facebook, and Greg Fortin, owner of Glacier Adventure Guides in Columbia Falls responded.
Fortin called around to food donation centers in the Flathead Valley and within a day, secured 2,000 pounds of potatoes and a pallet of bread and granola bars from the Flathead Food Bank in Kalispell.
"Well, from what I've been told there are about 100-200 families that don't have enough food. They had that extreme weather and state of emergency,” Fortin says.
Fortin met St. Goddard first in Cut Bank and then across the reservation in Heart Butte. In total, about 200 families came to pick up food boxes.
“Potatoes and bread. We say napayenii and spatakiis,” St. Goddard says.
Heart Butte is one of more rural communities on the reservation. The sharp peaks of the Continental Divide cut the skyline to the west, and rolling prairie stretches to the east. The nearest full-service grocery store is thirty miles away in Browning. When any kind of weather blows in, trips into town are out of the question.
“We couldn't even get out of here. We couldn't even get out of our yard,” Marisha Racine says.
Marisha Wells Racine says hip-high snow drifts covered the roads for days after the New Year’s storm. Highway 2 over Marias Pass closed, as did tribal government offices in Browning.
“Finally my husband got stuck. He made it out, he went down this east road. Took him two and half hours to get to town to buy bread, potatoes, what we need, two and half hours back,” she says.
It was a few weeks late, but the donation drop was well received. Kids ran boxes to their grandparents and adults packed a little extra for their neighbors. It’s a good feeling, but St. Goddard says drops to rural communities don’t happen often enough, nor do they begin to address chronic hunger on the reservation.
“This is just a Band-Aid. But it's something. We need the whole thing,” St. Goddard says.
The whole thing is economic revitalization. The state Department of Labor and Industry pegs unemployment on the reservation at 11 percent, compared to Montana’s four percent average. Locals consistently told me poverty, drugs, lack of transportation, no internet, and the sheer size of the reservation can make access to food and assistance programs feel impossible. But tribal and federal programs are trying to address that.
Roy Crawford took the helm of the Blackfeet Food Distribution Program and the tribal Blackfeet Food Pantry Program in 2016. He has big goals.
“My plan is to close fiscal year 2018 over 1,000 individuals; just by reaching out to them,” Crawford says.
Crawford oversees the federal Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, basically SNAP or food stamps for tribal members funded by the Farm Bill. It’s also called commodities. He’s doubled enrollment in the program over the past two years to serve almost 600 people and he’s revamping the feel of the distribution center, moving away from a warehouse with pallets to a self-serve store.
“With the new system, we are pushing for a re-grand opening April 1 to where it’s just like going into your regular grocery store,” Crawford says.
Crawford also oversees the tribally-funded food pantry in Browning. It’s undergoing major changes, too, placing a bigger focus on delivering donations into outlier communities instead of opening the Browning office on a daily basis.
“My goal is to identify the ones who really need it,” he says.
That means implementing new guidelines and tweaking the application process. Crawford says it’s all trial and error, figuring out how to satisfy the reservation’s need given logistical constraints of time and budgets.
“Is the need being met here? Do we have enough? The answer is no. Are these programs being utilized to the best of their ability? Probably not. So we face two problems: We have a need, and then we have to get the individuals, we have to empower the individuals to come use these programs,” Crawford says.
He says donations, like the single drop Greg Fortin and Jimmy St. Goddard orchestrated, or recurring shipments like what Scott Brant organizes with the Blackfeet Nourish Project, are always welcome. But Crawford adds those drops are Band-Aids that won’t heal the wound. He says he wants to start addressing the underlying reasons that make them necessary.