Keep it local: Lessons from Livingston on ending hunger

Tour

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Michael McCormick shows off some of the equipment in the kitchen of the Livingston Food Resource Center. Listening, from left, are Maia Dickerson, Sade Johnson, Elle Ross and Claire Oakley.

LIVINGSTON—Michael McCormick brought a long career in corporate marketing to his post-retirement job as director of the Livingston Food Resource Center, which used to operate as a simple food pantry.

It didn’t take him long to determine that the old model—raise money, buy food, hand it out, repeat—didn’t make any sense. He turned to his background to find a new model, one that is heavy on business, on training and promoting economic development.

“Our mission is really to help people, not just put a Band-Aid on an issue,” he said. “We don’t want to put a Band-Aid on it. We want to develop a vaccine.”

That mindset spills over into every aspect of the Food Resource Center, which happens to have a really nice kitchen with shiny-new, industrial-size food-processing equipment. But McCormick doesn’t think the word “kitchen” quite covers it. He said he prefers to think of it as a “business development laboratory.”

That mix of hard-headedness and missionary zeal makes him an inspirational leader, the kind of person other people working on hunger and food insecurity want to learn from.

Virginia Mermel, co-chair of the Best Beginnings Council’s Ready Communities Committee, which was organized by the United Way of Yellowstone County and deals with food insecurity, said she wishes she could clone McCormick. Since that was out, she did the next best thing and organized a guided tour of the Livingston Food Resource Center on Monday, led by McCormick.

She was accompanied by Claire Oakley, director of population health at RiverStone Health, the Yellowstone County health agency, and two prevention health specialists at RiverStone, Maia Dickerson and Brandi Stevenson. Stevenson is here on a posting from the Centers for Disease Control.

Rounding out the group were Sade Johnson, with the Montana No Kid Hungry Americorps Program, dedicated to increasing school breakfast participation in Billings, and Elle Ross, a FoodCorps staff member doing similar work for Hardin Public Schools.

During a three-hour visit Monday, starting in a conference room and continuing during a tour of the center, the visitors heard McCormick describe a variety of interrelated programs. The center tries to buy as much fresh produce as it can from local farmers, meaning good food for its clients and support for the local agricultural economy.

They also heard about a Healthy Eaters Club, in which children are given coupons for fresh fruit and vegetables from the local Albertsons store. The coupons can’t be used by adults, meaning the children have to find the food item in question—a recent coupon was good for two pounds of fresh broccoli—weigh it and take it through checkout themselves.

In the center’s big kitchen—ahem, “its business development laboratory”—pantry clients can enroll in a 10-week culinary program designed to give them skills for pursuing a career-path job in a restaurant or other commercial kitchen.

Pantry

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The Livingston Food Resource Center, formerly the Livingston Food Pantry, opened last January.

And if they or anyone else in the community wants to start a food-based business, they can rent kitchen space for $12 an hour. An established food business that wants to increase capacity or just have access to all that new equipment can rent the kitchen for $15 an hour.

There is a scholarship fund that allows qualifying clients to use the kitchen for free, and a micro-loan fund to help people launch new businesses. The loans can be repaid by helping other people learn how to use the kitchen’s equipment.

The kitchen is also used to prepare food for a local elementary school and to process, flash-freeze and vacuum-pack locally grown produce that is then put on the shelves of the center’s food pantry.

Money made from renting out the kitchen—and the center’s regularly booked conference room—is used to support center operations.

“It really comes down to thinking of your nonprofit as a business,” McCormick said. And though it hasn’t made him popular at some meetings of social-service providers, McCormick likes to say that food pantries operating under the old model are not doing the job that needs to be done.

Mermel, the tour organizer, had been to the Livingston center before and wanted some of her colleagues to see it for themselves.

Mermel served five years as chair of the School Health Advisory Committee for Billings School District 2 and she now coordinates the district’s BackPack Meals and Teen Pantry programs. But she knows there’s a lot more that can be done and she hopes agencies in Billings can learn from Livingston.

“It’s an amazing concept he (McCormick) put together that answers a lot of issues in one center,” Mermel said during the drive to Livingston. “I’m hoping we’ll look at it and at least start having the appropriate conversation in Billings.”

The main cause of food insecurity in Billings and lots of other cities, Mermel said, isn’t unemployment or homelessness. It’s the gap between how much working families earn and what it costs to take care of their families. She said a living wage for one adult raising one child in Billings would be $17.35 an hour, but many adults working in the service industry make only $8.05 to $10 an hour.

The result is that while Billings has a low unemployment rate—2.8 to 3 percent, down from 4.2 percent last year at this time—the number of public school students who qualified for free or reduced-price school meals rose from 37.5 percent in 2013 to 38.6 percent last spring.

Of the 6,294 children thus qualified, Mermel said, 5,255 received free or reduced-price meals because their parents earned 130 percent ($30,000 for a family of four) or less of the federal poverty limit.

Oakley, RiverStone’s population health director, said hunger triggers a series of cascading difficulties for students.

“If you’re hungry, it’s harder to pay attention in school,” she said. “If you’re hungry, it’s harder to behave in school.”

McCormick saw some of the same problems in Livingston and decided to do something about them.

Storage

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Virginia Mermel takes notes while McCormick continues the tour in the Food Resource Center’s storage area.

He retired to Livingston from the East Coast eight years ago and thought he’d be happy being able to fish all he wanted. But the shine wore off that quickly, and in the midst of the 2009 recession he started volunteering at what was then the Livingston Food Pantry, located in an old automotive garage far from the downtown.

He said he soon realized that “the pantry wasn’t working. It was not solving the hunger problem.” Being a “data-driven guy,” he started researching why people needed help, and the more he learned, the more he got involved in the pantry. And in 2009 he was made director.

The pantry became the Livingston Food Resource Center last January, when it moved into a newly constructed 5,000-square-foot building at 202 S. Second St. In keeping with his business outlook, McCormick said he was determined to build the new center without going into debt.

They did it, raising all but $450,000—which came in the form of a Community Development Block Grant, passed down from the feds through the state—in private donations.

This spring, the first six students graduated from the culinary program. All six of them had begun as clients of the food pantry, McCormick said, and all six had jobs awaiting them when they graduated.

The center has also helped launch three food businesses since the kitchen opened, and while they are small businesses, McCormick said, lasting economic development comes from local start-ups.

The center’s next goal is to open a small grocery store in downtown Livingston. People who qualify for SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, would pay reduced prices, while those paying higher prices would, theoretically, cover the costs of running the store.

It would be staffed by pantry clients and it would be stocked as much as possible with food produced and processed locally. They’ve already come up with a brand name—Paradise Pantry, named for the nearby Paradise Valley—to market the food.

McCormick urged his visitors to learn what they could from Livingston but to pay close attention to the specific needs of people in Billings.

“I’m convinced that the problems we face are local, and that the solutions have to be local,” he said.

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