By Ryan Acra
Shaun Tatarka says he has the greatest job in the world.
“We get to make sure the groups fighting hunger on the front lines get what they need to have as much success as possible,”
says Tatarka, the Executive Director of the Great Falls Community Food Bank.
The groups and programs fighting that battle are many, and far-reaching, but that’s what our community needs.
Montana ranks in the top ten for states with very low food security.
This means that per capita, our state is among the worst in the country in terms of households that are uncertain or unable to acquire enough food to meet the basic needs of all of the home’s members.
In Cascade County specifically, 20% of our children are living in poverty.
Sixty–seven percent of the students enrolled in pre-K to 12th grade in our public schools are eligible for free/reduced meal programs.
Those statistics seem dire, but the good news is, Tatarka and his team at the Food Bank work tirelessly with the community to make sure hungry children get nutritious meals.
From the Summer Food Wagon in the parks, to the Transitions Program for homeless children, the Food Bank makes sure the food is available when their community partners need it. While Tatarka doesn’t run the specific programs, he takes pride in supplying many of the resources for their success.
One of the most successful programs using the Food Bank’s resources is the Backpacks4Kids Program.
The program was started in 2010 to service our city’s four most impoverished schools. Now, less than a decade later, the program is being used in all 15 elementary schools.
The Backpacks4Kids program works behind the scenes to ensure students using the program have anonymity and comfort in the process.
Each week, teachers and faculty at each school identify students in need of assistance through the backpack program. Backpack orders are placed by the schools on Mondays and the Food Bank delivers the packages back to the schools on Wednesday or Thursday to be distributed.
The packages of food, which include cereal, two easy-to-prepare entrees (like macaroni and cheese or soup), milk, juice, a granola bar, fruit snacks, and another small snack like animal crackers, are used to help kids stay nourished through the weekend.
The packages, similar to the one seen below, are discreetly placed in the identified students’ backpacks as they are needed.
While distribution of the packages varies by school or even by classroom, Tatarka says his team prepares 600-700 backpacks per week. That’s feeding a lot of kids.
There are a number of great sponsors for the program, but the need isn’t slowing down.
“The cost is right around $3.20 per backpack,” Tatarka explains. “It works out to be $150 to sponsor one kid for an entire school year.”
And the food has to be purchased meaning food donations can’t be used. “Each package is exactly the same,” says Tatarka. “We work hard to be efficient in our shopping to keep the costs as low as possible and continue to feed as many students as possible.”
With the Backpacks4Kids program, the schools’ pantries, and all of the great people in our community,
Tatarka and his team are proud to arm the warriors fighting against student hunger.
To learn more, or to donate to Backpacks4Kids or any of the other Great Falls Community Food Bank program, please visit www.greatfallsfoodbank.org.
Let’s not let one child go hungry this year.