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Making it in Big Sky: Big Sky Community Food Bank

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By Bay Stephens EBS Staff Writer

BIG SKY – For years, Lynne Anderson, co-owner of The Country Market, extended credit to her customers for groceries during the off-seasons when it can be difficult for some Big Sky residents to make ends meet. Seeing a constant increase in the need for emergency food in Big Sky, Anderson approached the Human Resource Development Council in Bozeman with the idea of starting a food bank.

Initially, a staff member from the Gallatin Valley Food Bank would drive a van of food to a Big Sky parking lot so people could shop. Anderson and a group of volunteers worked with the HRDC and Big Sky community to secure funding to renovate and equip the food bank’s current space in the Big Horn Shopping Center. The doors of the Big Sky Community Food Bank opened in the spring of 2012.

Sarah Gaither Bivins was hired as program coordinator in October of 2013. The only paid employee of the Big Sky food bank, she relies heavily on a band of dedicated volunteers and advisory council members to run the operation.

For this installment of this ongoing series, EBS shifted its focus to the nonprofit sector to inquire about the challenges and rewards of operating a nonprofit organization in Big Sky.

Explore Big Sky: What is the most satisfying aspect of running a nonprofit in Big Sky?

Sarah Gaither Bivins: To be able to connect people who have needs in our community with the abundant resources that we also have in our community. My clients are often amazed at the unique items we have on our shelves, from gluten free and allergy-specific food items, to processed wild game, to beautiful produce from the farmers market.

EBS: What advice would you give other nonprofits in the area?

S.G.B.: Nonprofits in Big Sky have the unique challenge of developing programs to meet the needs of a community with no centralized organizing body, like a city council. Therefore, we all have to work hard to cooperate and communicate with each other as organizations and groups for the betterment of Big Sky.

EBS: What about your organization would you like more Big Sky residents to know?

S.G.B.: That we exist! “Big Sky needs a food bank?” is one question I hear over and over from both visitors and some residents. Those of us who are lucky enough to live in this community year-round, as well as those in the seasonal workforce, know how financially difficult it is to make it through the off-seasons when work is scarce or nonexistent. We’re open two days a week, year-round.

That anyone can use the food bank—you don’t have to “qualify.” If you feel like you’re in a food emergency, please come see me. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about—for most of my clients, moving to Big Sky is the first time they’ve ever had to use a food bank in their lives. Also, all of our services are confidential.

EBS: What are the biggest obstacles to operating a nonprofit in Big Sky?

S.G.B.: As with many Big Sky nonprofits, I find that securing sustainable and reliable funding is a big obstacle. Our community organizations are generous, however, adhering to an annual grant cycle makes future planning uncertain.

EBS: What is one of the most memorable moments you’ve had as head of operations?

S.G.B.: One of my happiest and most memorable moments was last month’s pancake breakfast in Fire Pit Park. It was amazing to see our funders and our clients sitting together at the same table, eating homemade pancakes smothered in syrup and butter.

EBS: Where do you get your donations and your funding?

S.G.B.: We ask for grant funds from all of our community organizations: Resort Tax, Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, Spanish Peaks Community Foundation, Moonlight Community Foundation. Town Pump, The United Way and NorthWestern Energy also provide small grants each year. For the rest, we look to Big Sky residents and businesses to support us on an annual basis.

EBS: Do you think Big Sky will always need the services you provide?

S.G.B.: I imagine that as long as employees in Big Sky are paid less than a living wage, our community will need a food bank. I hope that new opportunities for appropriate housing will alleviate some financial difficulties for our clients, but I understand that no housing solution will be immediate.

EBS: How many families/individuals does the food bank benefit?

S.G.B.: As of March 2018, the food bank has served 1,653 unique households consisting of over 2,000 unique individuals. Each year, we serve about 400 unique households consisting of about 500 unique individuals.

EBS: How have Big Sky’s needs changed since you started working with the food bank?

S.G.B.: When I first started, many people would ask about job openings in Big Sky. Today, my clients have jobs but no housing. Those with both still have trouble because their options tend to be either overpriced, overcrowded, or inadequate for their family. The housing problems have also affected my volunteers, several of whom have left town because of their inability to find appropriate housing.

EBS: What motivates you to continue doing what you do?

S.G.B.: I genuinely like the people who come in to our food bank and I think it’s fun to hang out with them twice a week.

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