HELENA — FAST (Food Access & Sustainability Team) Blackfeet is finding ways to adapt as they work to meet the needs of their community during the COVID-19 pandemic. FAST Blackfeet fights food insecurity and works to make sure people have access to healthy, affordable, and culturally relevant food.
In September 2019, they created the Ō´yō´•ṗ´ food pantry. Since then, they have stepped up to safely provide thousands of food for families who need it, even as a pandemic changed everything.
“This was really out of left field,” said Danielle Antelope, the co-chair of FAST Blackfeet during a Zoom interview Tuesday. “I did not expect it, and I also didn’t expect us to be able to handle it the way we’ve handled it.”
Nonie Woolf, the chair of the organization, said their mission is even more important as the reservation remains closed for the safety of the people who live there.
“We still needed to stay open, because when everything is in lockdown, people are not able to leave their homes,” she said. “Some people are afraid to leave their homes to get food.”
According to Antelope, the pantry has given out 95,363 pounds of food to families since March. Before the pandemic, they gave out 400 to 600 pounds of food each week. Now, she says, that number has risen to 4,000.
They’ve had to make adjustments to the way they operate, in order to keep people safe.
People can come to the pantry to pick their boxes up in a new drive-thru system, or volunteers deliver the boxes to people’s homes. The boxes include canned, fresh and frozen produce, as well as meat, bread and other foods that fit the MyPlate food guide. There is no income limit for people who need their services.
Volunteers can only participate right now if they are healthy and haven’t been exposed to the virus. Plus, people are no longer able to “shop” for their foods, so VISTA volunteer Mackenize Sachs is including recipe cards with each box showing people how to use the foods they receive.
For FAST Blackfeet leaders, COVID-19 has revealed ways in which they can reach more people who need their help most. According to Antelope, some people don’t readily have access to a cell phone or car, making it hard to arrange food pick-up.
It’s become a team effort to work to address those gaps; FAST Blackfeet has collaborated with Piikani Lodge Health Institute for food delivery, and they’re also working with the Montana American Indian Women’s Health Coalition.
“We have a huge community,” said Antelope. “If we start serving them now and far into the future, and if this ever happens again, then we will have something to show for what we learned during this time.”
The organization received $45,000 in CARES Act funding, which they will use to buy a refrigerated van in September. The van will become their mobile food pantry, allowing them to travel and deliver more food.
Besides addressing food insecurity, leaders say they also want to provide employment opportunities for people. They’re always accepting monetary donations online or via check.
To get in touch with the organization, call 406-845-2404. If you are a farmer or rancher who wants to donate food, the pantry also accepts those types of donations.