On Sept. 20, more than 400 volunteers packed 100,000 servings of food at the second-annual University United Food Friday for kids across Missoula county, doubling the goal from last year.
Twenty-six tables were arranged across the UM Ballroom as individuals and teams formed assembly lines to put together pasta packages of mac and cheese and tomato basil. The event began last year when UM President Seth Bodnar decided to focus his inauguration around service. Bodnar said this service event is the perfect embodiment of the UM family.
“Rather than have a big gala dinner, let’s have a community service event where we pack meals for others rather than eating a meal ourselves,” Bodnar said. “It’s a great example by what we mean by the UM family: Families come together and help each other, families work together to help the overall family be successful.”
People at tables rang a cow bell and let out cheers after they filled each box. Every box contained about 200 meals, and each meal included about 40 packets. United Way of Missoula County fundraised $30,000 for supplies provided by the Outreach Program.
Through the Empower Pack Program, food is distributed to kids of all ages. Aaron Brock, the executive director of the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center, said meals are delivered to schools every Friday afternoon. An adult like a school teacher or counselor then discreetly places the food into the backpacks of kids identified as at risk of going hungry. He said the meals usually contain two breakfasts, two dinners and two healthy snacks.
“Right now there are more than 1,000 kids in our community that are taking this home today,” Brock said. “What’s cool about this is at the end of the day, it provides the additional family meal.”
Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of United Way of Missoula County, said she originally brainstormed with Bodnar about the University-Missoula community partnership. She said last year they only used half the UC Ballroom and finished early, so doubling their goal seemed doable.
“To me, it’s just such a wonderful example of how the University has become much more outward-facing over the last few years and really acknowledging that our fortunes are tied together,” Patrick said. “When the community is healthy, the University is healthy and vice versa.”
The food donations will not only go out to the community. They will also go to the University. Fifty packets, which amounts to about 300 meals, will go to the UM Food Pantry. The pantry has been open for almost seven months. Kat Cowley, the food pantry coordinator, said the pantry has served 106 students and regularly assisted 20-25 students per month since it opened.
Cowley said the UM campus has a 42% food insecurity, slightly higher than the one-third of college students nationally. For her, it’s important to have a place on campus for students to go. She said getting donations from Food Friday is great for grabbing a meal between classes without having to worry about setting aside a lot of time to prep and cook a meal.
“Having experienced food insecurity in my undergrad career, I know how hard it is to be hungry and try to do well in classes and work enough,” Cowley said. “It feels like there has been a resource gap. It’s really important for institutions to provide help on campus and bring the resources to students.”
Bodnar said that this is his favorite day of the year. He said he didn’t plan to make it a tradition, but now he’ll see what the future holds.