The Extra Mile

The food bank network sets tables in rural Montana

Story by Caleb Brinton

Photos by Joseph Evans

On a chilly Tuesday morning, a black BMW pulls up to the Missoula Food Bank and a well-dressed woman in her mid-30s steps out. She enters the food bank and a few moments later she returns to her car with a box filled with canned soup, boxed pasta, bread and other items. Over the course of the next hour, more cars pull in. Some look like they just came off the showroom floor. Others are dirty and well-traveled, packed to the brim with the owner’s belongings.

The Missoula Food Bank is one of 346 programs across Montana that addresses food insecurity, an issue that reaches a wide range of people across the state. It works with the Montana Food Bank Network (MFBN), an organization established in 1983 that distributes food across the state. According to a report by MFBN, one in 10 Montanans are food insecure, including one in every six children.

But the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to closures and supply shortages, compounds the issue. In rural areas, residents can live between 50 and 100 miles from a supermarket. In these food deserts, gas stations have become the most reliable source of food, and in a pandemic, even these sources have faced threats.

With the pandemic taking its toll on food insecure Montanans, MFBN has increased its output and education across all 56 counties. It has increased distribution by 40% statewide through partnerships with local businesses and major corporations.

Bill Mathews, the chief development officer of the Montana Food Bank Network.

“In 2019, we had distributed over 16 million pounds of food,” said Bill Mathews, chief development officer for the MFBN. “In 2020, we routed just shy of 24 million pounds of food. That’s distribution to food banks, food pantries, senior centers, shelters and in schools.”

It’s not an easy feat — in cities where there are distribution centers and services, food can get into the hands of people much easier, but food deserts in rural parts of the state require more creative approaches.

One example of a new approach is an MFBN program that mails boxes of food directly to houses in isolated areas. This program has an abbreviated application that does not require proof of need. Those who apply can receive a box of shelf-stable food every six weeks. It’s a pre-emptive effort, rather than a reactive one, allowing the MFBN to get out in front of food insecurity problems.

The school backpack program is another MFBN effort to combat food insecurity of children. According to Stephanie Staley, MFBN chief programs officer, the program started when a school nurse noticed students were coming to school hungry and unable to focus. Though many students were receiving free breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks at school, many were going home to nothing.

Montana Food Bank Network Delivery Driver, Doug Topp, unloads one of two pallets from the truck into the Haven House Food Bank located in Hamilton, Montana.

With the program, food is put into student backpacks for the night and often over the weekend. Food becomes one less thing to worry about in an environment that can be challenging and stressful in other ways. Since the program’s inception in 2019, 161 Montana schools have adopted it.

“Each backpack bag contains two breakfasts, two lunches, two entrees and two snacks as well as shelf-stable milk for kids so that they have breakfast, lunch and meals on Saturdays and Sundays,” Staley said.

MFBN’s main challenge has been getting food donations and money to make these meals. The organization’s solution was to partner with major food brands such as Campbell and Kellogg, as well as the University of Montana Entertainment Management program in the College of Business that provided marketing for the campaign.

Another challenge for MFBN is one everyone is facing: Ongoing fluctuations in product availability and distribution. Because of the pandemic, there have been delays in the supply chain.

Volunteers Ellen Holleman and Rich Raines unload boxes of food at the Haven House Food Bank.

“It’s kind of to a point where we never know when we place an order for backpack food or a truckload of canned chili, if we’re going to get it next week — or if it’s going to be three, four months from now,” Staley said.

MFBN isn’t focused only on healing Montana’s food system — the organization also works on a national level in partnership with Feeding America, a nationwide hunger-fighting organization.

“Montana Food Bank Network works at the state level and a national level in Washington, D.C., to work on moving hunger issues forward and making it so there’s more opportunities for people to acquire food,” Mathews said. “Whether it’s through us or a local food bank or food pantry in their area.”

Darrell Holland (left) and John Serfass, Haven House volunteers, unload boxes of Thanksgiving turkeys into the freezer.

Giving a Hoot

MPG Ranch is tracking owls to unlock their migration secrets

Story and photos
by Michael Martello

Mary Scofield gently measures a Northern saw-whet owl’s wing size.

On an October evening at the MPG ranch, just before dusk, a northern saw-whet owl mating call, composed of sharp hoots, plays over a loudspeaker. The goal is to capture saw-whet owls in large mesh nets, which have been placed in a triangular pattern, tangled between thin trees next to a riverbank. Every 20 minutes the nets are checked. If an owl is present, it is safely removed and placed in a cotton sack to be weighed. The larger goal: To understand where these owls are going and what their future holds.

MPG ranch, established in 2009, is a 15,000-acre property in the Bitterroot Valley of Western Montana. It focuses on restoration and conservation. Since 1881, the property has been primarily used for raising livestock and other agricultural practices, which displaced and removed native flora and fauna from the area. Now the ranch is run by wildlife biologists and ecological experts who focus on projects to restore and conserve the landscape. They study everything from the microscopic fungi in soils that promote plant health, to the migration of large game, such as elk and mountain lions. 

The ranch has around 30 full-time employees and is privately funded. They don’t rely on federal grants and don’t profit directly from natural resources extracted during the process. 

Studying bird migration is an ongoing project at the ranch. Researchers look at which bird species are using the Bitterroot corridor as a passage of migration. They do so using radio and GPS transmitting devices, which locate species’ travel and settling patterns over multiple years. 

MPG researchers have tracked common nighthawks migrating to South America — mainly Argentina — Lewis’s woodpeckers migrating to the mountains of Oregon, and western osprey migrating to Southern Mexico. Their studies aim to understand where these species travel and breed during different periods of their life cycles. 

A current study is focusing on the movement of the northern saw-whet owl. The saw-whet owl moves in large numbers and is relatively easy to capture due to its small size, averaging a body length of 20 cm. 

This project is helping avian wildlife biologists at the ranch understand migration from a broader lens. They track migration through time, climate shifts and other environmental variables that affect flight patterns and where different species choose to breed. 

“A larger part of the migration study is to understand the migration corridor. That’s the path that they take to get to their wintering grounds,” said Mary Scofield, a researcher at the ranch, as she measured the wing length of a first-year saw-whet owl. They are trying to understand which landscapes the owls use as they move from their summer grounds to their wintering grounds.

The employees who handle the owls have years of training on how to capture the birds safely and avoid injuring the birds and themselves. They have received federal and state permits to equip the birds with number identification bands and tracking devices. 

After she weighs it, Scofield clamps a metal band with a unique number onto its leg and records a series of measurements into an online database, including the approximate age of the species, wear of feather, visible injuries and total body part measurements. A MOTUS tag, that is a small lightweight radio transmitter that sends out pulses every few seconds, is tied onto the owl and will be detected by receivers spread out internationally.

“A large part of landscape connectivity or conservation is understanding how animals use a landscape,” Scofield said. “We are more interested in the [Bitterroot Valley] corridor. Where do they go, and how did they get there? Long-term, this project may not be able to answer these questions. But other long-term migration studies can look at how that might change with climate change or the spreading of cities and how forests and landscapes are managed?”

When the tagging of the saw-whet owl is complete, the owl is gently placed on a nearby river birch branch, where it is given time to readjust to its natural environment and, in time, fly back into the night.

Taking the Reins

Providing therapeutic horseback riding to Montanans in need

Story and photos by Kennedy Delap

Volunteer Jayne Wilkinson leads Jack, while volunteer Paxton Sanchez holds onto Hazel Guerette's leg for support as she participates in her riding lesson on Wednesday, October 6, 2021. “When she first started she was pretty shy,” says Sam Morton, staff physical therapist, reflecting on Guerette’s progress at Trotting Horse Therapeutic Riding. Guerette gives Morton and the volunteers waves and smiles, and she repeats back words to them, even telling Jack to “Go!” every once in a while.

Hazel Guerette is just 4 years old. She has been coming to Trotting Horse Therapeutic Riding Center once a week since the spring of this year. She skips down the aisle of the barn between the horse stalls, holding her mother’s hand, chanting “Horsies!” as she goes. Guerette is autistic and spends a lot of time in different therapy sessions working on her development. Riding lessons are a way for her to have fun and get out of her shell, escaping the hard work. 

“She lights up when I say she is going to go ride,” Erica Sandiland, her mother, said. 

Guerette loves the horses’ tails, their big noses and their ears. 

“She doesn’t love a lot of things,” her mother said. “The horses help connect her to the world and to her body in a way that she enjoys.”

She puts her arms up as Trotting Horse volunteers Jayne Wilkinson and Paxton Sanchez lift her up by her armpits into a tiny leather saddle perched on a huge, gray horse. The horse’s name is Jack, an old high-competition roping horse who was donated to the stable after his career had ended. He walks around the arena with a gentle trot, and Guerette beams at her mother from his back. 

Guerette is one of more than 50 students from ages 3 to 75 who come to Trotting Horse. 

Near the base of Blue Mountain, rolling pastures surround Trotting Horse, filled with dappled gray horses, palominos with flaxen manes and old red mares nibbling fall grass. 

A large barn is situated in the middle of the ranch where stalls line the aisle leading to an arena entrance. There is a wall filled with dusty children’s helmets, some with little handprints on them. Horses nicker as volunteers carry grain buckets up and down the barn. 

Trotting Horse is a therapeutic riding center founded by Cyndi Meyer in 2015. Meyer bought the ranch 16 years ago, and for the first decade it was a place where people could board their horses. When Meyer retired from special education, however, she wanted to continue her work helping children with disabilities. 

“There are not enough activities for them, in my opinion, where they get to decide how the hour runs,” Meyer said. 

Lessons at Trotting Horse can be spent any way the student wishes — visiting, grooming or riding. The goals of each student vary too. Guerette’s goal is to spend her time doing something fun, but the benefits have gone beyond her expectations. Her physical therapist, Samantha Morton, helps her work on her motor skills and core strength during her lessons. Morton has her throw little Velcro balls at a target, encouraging Hazel to bend and twist in ways that engage her core and body. 

“That mind-body connection. That’s a great bonus of it,” Sandiland said about the physical aspect of her daughter’s riding. 

Each rider has a different goal, some may want to stretch their legs, some seek the comfort of the horses for anxiety and stress relief. 

“[Horses] can sense you,” Nita Kattell, a board member, volunteer and instructor, said. “They can feel your heartbeat, they just have this innate sense of … just kind of what’s happening.”

“[Horses] can sense you,” Nita Kattell, a board member, volunteer and instructor, said. “They can feel your heartbeat, they just have this innate sense of … just kind of what’s happening.”

When a rider is feeling nervous or uncomfortable, the horses react. Not only do these animals mirror their riders’ emotions, but they also understand their jobs and show kindness to the children and adults who climb on their backs. 

Kattell is also a retired teacher, and was a big part of getting Trotting Horse Ranch started, alongside Meyer. Kattell boarded horses at Trotting Horse back in 2015 when therapy was first introduced to the ranch, and she understands firsthand how having a relationship with a horse can help lower anxiety. It’s why she enjoys helping others who come there. 

It’s something bigger than herself, she said. She has seen her students progress until they can ride independently, weaving through cones and effectively communicating with the horses. 

Trotting Horse is a place where people come together, forming connections with one another and the horses that call this place home.

“I feel so happy because I know how much fun it is,” Sandiland said. “I know how amazing it is to have a connection with a thing that is bigger than you, with an animal. Something that just is kind and gets you. The horses have been so sweet with Hazel.”