January 19, 2022

This is my second year of service at the University of Montana Food Pantry. This is also the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, and things are not looking up for the majority of people- not even close. Everywhere I look, people are struggling to make ends meet. Homelessness is on the rise, people are angry. There seems to be a lot of talk from our leaders, but not much action to back it. The problems we are facing seem insurmountable given our current trajectory. The world seems a much colder place lately- and not just because it’s winter in Montana.

As an AmeriCorps VISTA, I interact with marginalized people on a daily basis. I get to know the faces behind the statistics of food insecurity, hunger and homelessness. I do what I can to provide them with immediate relief, with the understanding that immediate relief is just a bandaid on top of a giant, festering wound. Our food system is broken. For one thing, most food travels 1,500 miles from its origin to make it to your plate, making it incredibly CO2-intensive. In addition, nearly one-third of all available food in the United States goes to waste. Modern agricultural practices are depleting soils of important nutrients and contributing to a loss of biodiversity around the world. As a single person at a single organization, I can only do so much to tackle the issue of food insecurity. But my contributions are not insignificant.

At the University of Montana, an estimated 63% of students struggle to meet their food, housing, and other needs. When faced with a choice between paying rent and putting food on the table, many students will go without meals, as food is the most flexible part of their budget. Cost, time, access to cooking equipment and facilities, transportation, and dietary restrictions are all barriers to meeting nutritional needs. At the UM Pantry, we work to limit as many of these barriers as possible by providing free food assistance, free personal care products, SNAP application support and referrals. We also combat stigma through education, advocacy and outreach. In order to provide the greatest benefit to the most people, we must try to balance how we provide food based on nutritional content, convenience, quality, variety, source and cost- a balance not always easily struck!

Through my service, we have started a grocery rescue operation which has so far diverted over 1,600 pounds of food from the landfill, making it available to hungry families. We have also grown, harvested and distributed nearly 400 pounds of fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs from the garden behind our building. Since the beginning of my service, the Pantry has distributed 26,000 pounds of food and personal care products to 345+ households. Like I said before, I can’t solve food insecurity, but neither are my contributions insignificant.

Honestly, most days are pretty mundane. VISTA work is not as sexy as direct service or the Peace Corps; in fact, much of it is emailing. Before my service, I never realized just how much work gets done through email. And Zoom. So. Much. Zoom. But every now and then, I encounter a student who tells me how grateful they are for the Pantry, and how they wouldn’t be able to stay in school or make ends meet without it. And of course that makes me feel sad on many levels, but it also makes the daily grind worth it.

AmeriCorps volunteers are people who want to make a difference in their communities. We come from a variety of backgrounds, interests, and skill sets. But we share a common vision: to make our communities more welcoming, more sustainable, more equitable places. We are motivated by ideals rather than money. We show up with big ideas, and quickly learn that there are limitations as to what we can accomplish within a year of service. Even so, we continue to show up.

There are so many causes worth fighting for. Climate change, prison reform, refugee resettlement, food security, equal treatment and access to education and other resources, and many others. Most people don’t have the means to dedicate their time and energy to such causes, which is why it is all the more important for those of us who can to do so, and to advocate for those who can’t. None of this work is easy and it certainly doesn’t pay well, but it’s going to take a lot of donated time and energy to put us on the path towards healing. There is no more room for “individual interest”; our interests can only be realized if our communities are healthy and whole. It’s going to take a lot of community-minded individuals coming together to make the necessary changes.

I have been helped countless times throughout my life. While I may not be able to pay back every person who has shown me kindness and support, I can pay it forward. And that’s what service is all about: paying it forward. In the words of the late Desmond Tutu, “do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”