BILLINGS — When Cole’s Pantry first started in Bridger in 2010, they were sending weekend meals home for 11 kids. By October 2020, that number had risen to 1,250 with 20 total chapters across Montana.
Now, as food insecurity becomes a bigger problem than ever thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re up to 2,000 kids served weekly.
“The 2,000 number in 11 years is more than I ever could have hoped for when we first started this project," said Cole's Pantry project coordinator Vicki Kaufman. "It made me cry.”
Kaufman has poured her heart and soul into Cole’s Pantry ever since she encouraged Fallon Pelican to start it, in honor of Fallon’s late brother. The program sends food home on weekends to children and families in need, completely free of charge. Kaufman has helped bring many of the chapters online, including a new one this fall at the Great Falls Food Bank.
"We’ve seen a big increase this year, more than we expected," said executive director Shaun Tatarka. "We're now serving 725 kids weekly in Great Falls."
"It’s the biggest one we’ve had," Kaufman said. "It's just so exciting to know they’ve found us as a resource to help them meet the need in their community."
Cole’s Pantry gives new members all the startup costs they need. Then it’s on the individual chapters to make them thrive, though Kaufman helps every step of the way. Just this week, she put another pin in the map in Baker.
"I wasn’t aware it could come this far east of Billings, so that was exciting," said Baker FCCLA adviser Pam Beach, who worked with Kaufman to receive the $1,500 startup grant.
Beach and her FCCLA club have been running a food pantry for a while, but they believe the Cole’s Pantry method of sending it directly home with kids completely anonymously will make a much bigger difference.
"Kids aren’t going to go in something like (our pantry) and ask for something," Beach admitted.
"Providing things for people is always good," said FCCLA chapter president Abygale Cuppy, a Baker 8th grader. "Being anonymous is a good thing so people can take it and not feel bad."
Another of Beach’s FCCLA students who recently had to quarantine because of COVID-19 knows what that can do to families these days.
"If people get quarantined, even it’s just for two weeks, they don’t have food in the house to get them through those weeks," said Victoria Davis.
"When we went home and taught remotely in March 2020, we still offered hot breakfast and lunch for free - all they had to do was come to the cafeteria door," Beach said. "I couldn’t believe the number of kids that came to the school to pick things up every day, so to me, that was a huge eye-opener. The need is bigger than I ever imagined."
It’s why more and more people are turning to this program with humble beginnings, and a humble leader.
"We were in the right place at the right time," Kaufman shrugs. "We had the structure to help distribute that money to the schools and kids in need."
"There’s a million reasons kids aren’t being fed at home. Ultimately, we don’t care what those reasons are - we just know kids shouldn’t be hungry at home," Tatarka said. "We need to get them fed."
The Montana Food Bank Network estimates more than 35,000 children in Montana live in food-insecure homes. That's 1,500 fewer than at this time last year, thanks to programs like this.