Hello, my name is Michael McCormick. I’m the Executive Director of The Livingston Food Pantry of Park County. After 30 years working in corporate America, and spending many summers fishing in Montana, I retired about 7 years ago and my wife and I moved to Livingston to be closer to the area’s great fishing and hiking opportunities. Everything was terrific for the first year, but then one day I realized that if the toughest decision I was going to make each day was whether or not I was going fishing… life was going to become pretty boring in a hurry. It was at the same time that I met the chairman of The Livingston Food Pantry’s board of directors who informed me that they were looking for a new director. The opportunity sounded like a chance to get involved in the community and help people in need, so, not having a moments worth of non-profit experience, I applied for the job.
I’ve been in the position for nearly four years now and it has been the most remarkable four years of my life… I quickly realized that in my prior “corporate life” I was cynical about providing assistance to people in need. If, at that time I had driven past a food pantry like ours in Livingston, I would have quickly dismissed the people waiting in line for emergency food assistance as being lazy and unmotivated and would have made some comment like “Go get a job.”
What I know now is that 99% of the people in the line are doing the best that they can with what they have to work with. They really do need assistance from those of us who are in positions to help.
I’ve learned that a community food pantry can be a remarkable tool for helping people in need… In addition to providing emergency food that helps people in the short term, food pantries can leverage the need to eat that we all share regardless of our economic situation, and design and implement programs that impact the lives and well being of people in need for the long term.
Every program that is implemented by The Livingston Food Pantry is designed to address a specific need that exists among the people we serve. The goal for each program is to help people eliminate the need to come to the food pantry in the first place. We know for instance that the primary cause for people needing The Livingston Food Pantry is unemployment. In an average month 55% of the people we serve are unemployed. Another 25% are employed, but are terribly underemployed, working minimum wage, hourly jobs. To address this issue of employment for example, we are designing and implementing courses in restaurant cooking to prepare people for jobs in the food service industry.
We recognize that most of the people who come to the food pantry are disenfranchised; they don’t participate in the community socially, economically, or politically.
In an effort to get people that we serve reengaged with the community, we started a community garden three summers ago. The primary goal was to give people the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families. At the same time we hoped that people would see that with some work and effort they could be productive, and in addition to beans and onions, we would be growing self confidence and self esteem. One of the best stories that have come from the garden involves a man who had been unemployed for a long period and had essentially given up hope of finding a job. When he started planting his plot, he was withdrawn and seemed to have little hope for the future. After proving to be a very good gardener and selling his excess produce at our weekly farmers market, his personality bloomed like the plants in the garden and he is now the manager of a retail store in Livingston.
What I have come to believe strongly is that community food pantries should play an active, leadership role in the development and support of sustainable, local food systems that serve all people in the community. Further, I believe that community food pantries, and all tax exempt public charities, should be required to define and help resolve the root causes that drive the needs they are serving. Like hunger, most challenges will be resolved one community at a time.
By accomplishing our goals in three areas: Caring for people in need; Supporting food related, local economic development: and, Educating people for the future, we can move toward our ultimate goal of helping people be successful, self sufficient, and not in need of emergency food provided by the pantry.
In Livingston I’m Michael McCormick for the Livingston Food Pantry and the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit us online at aeromt.org and have a wonderful holiday season.
This commentary originally aired on Montana Public Radio on December 6, 2012.