Marlis Arneson showed me the home-like kitchen where shelves are laden with canned goods, sorted dry beans, and even full-sized personal care products like toothpaste and shampoo.
Once a month, each family or individual can go into the kitchen with a volunteer and select 41 pounds of whatever they want. Many food banks prefill a grocery bag -- with food that will last about 4 days -- and hand that out, but Marlis believes people should get exactly what they like and will eat. That way, nothing donated goes to waste.
She explained that 41 pounds sounds like a lot of food, but canned goods, jars of oil, and bottles of juice are heavy. No matter what they choose, the 41 pounds should last about 2 weeks.
The food bank provides recipes to encourage cooking. As much unprocessed food as possible is given away -- things like flour, beans, vegetables, and wheat (see story below).
"You can't believe what this town grows," Marlis said. "We get squash, tomatoes, spinach, and turnips. Potato farmers [in other areas] donate their potatoes. Some people just want to eat out of cans, but we've really got people cooking."
Currently, the food bank serves 47 families (many are one-person households), 18 senior citizens, and 41 children. In January, 4,000 pounds of food was brought in and 5,300 pounds of food was given away.
The abundance I saw, overflowing into 3 rooms, 2 refrigerators, and 3 freezers, is the result of Marlis and storage manager Sandy Carroll honing their thrifty coupon-clipping skills and ability to spot bargains. Area store managers are often willing to provide bulk discounts.
Joining the Montana Food Bank Network in November 2009 was a huge help, Marlis said. Regular deliveries of food arrive now from Missoula.
Since the food bank is open only 3 days a week, a few grocery sacks are filled with food that can be eaten without cooking and left at the sheriff's office for hungry people passing through town.
While getting food, people can also pick up items not normally found at food banks, such as wash cloths, pot holders, and -- if available -- crockpots. Often volunteers will direct someone who needs clothes or other non-food items to the local thrift store.
Lots of wheat
Marlis loves to tell the story of a recent wheat donation that stretched every resourceful fiber in her being.
"A guy brought in a 100-pound sack of wheat, and we bagged it up and got some recipes on how to make cereal out of it, and it went pretty well. Then the guy asked, 'Do you want some more?' and I said: 'Sure!' And so here he came to my house with 1700 pounds in a bag THIS big. I thought, 'What in the world are we going to do with all this wheat?'
"So we put it in buckets, and we started really pushing it . . . but over the course of the whole summer we only went through 8 [5-gallon] buckets."
After a few phone calls, Marlis finally found a man in Fort Benton who said he could make stone-ground flour for 25 cents a pound, a real bargain. But although Marlis was expecting a $400 bill, the one that came was for $25.
"Okay, then I started looking at all that flour . . . I knew about the bread lady up at Pine Creek Bakery in Livingston. I just love her wholewheat bread, so I called her and told her what we were doing. She said, 'You know, I'm so impressed with your story, I'll quote you a bid and I won't even charge you for labor.'
"You see, I just want to hand everyone a loaf of wholewheat bread and a jar of peanut butter.
"Then she said, 'It would cheapen [the bill] if you could get donations of honey.' So I put the call out to my homemakers club of ranch ladies along the Yellowstone, and I said, 'We're going to be making this bread for the kids.' And the donations of honey I got from that club will last us 6 months. Gallons and gallons of honey. And that really cut down on the cost of the bread.
"We only have room for about 88, maybe 100 loaves at a time and that lasts us 6 or 7 weeks, and so I go up there [to the bakery] to get more. Everyone likes it, and we've gotten good feedback. The diabetics need whole grains, and it helps out costs.
"Every place you go, you have another good thing happen. It's just amazing; it's just absolutely amazing."
Printed here with permission is the recipe for Soup or Sauce (SOS) Mix, which when mixed with water substitutes for a can of creamed soup. The food bank stores this mix in plastic bags and makes it available along with a copy of a small cookbook that shows many uses for it, including creating mushroom or tomato soup, macaroni and cheese, and Chicken Broccoli Alfredo.
Soup or Sauce (SOS) Mix
2 cups powdered non-fat milk
3/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup instant chicken bouillon
2 tablespoons dried onion flakes
2 teaspoons Italian Seasoning
Combine all ingredients in a re-closeable plastic bag, mixing well.
Yield: Equal to 9 cans of cream soup.
To substitute for 1 can of cream soup:
1. Combine 1/3 cup of dry mix with 1 1/4 cups of cold water.
2. Cook and stir on stove top or in microwave until thickened.
3. Add thickened mixture to casseroles as you would a can of soup.
Store in closed plastic bag or air-tight container until ready to use. Mix does not have to be refrigerated.
How can you help?
Big Timber churches and local businesses support the food bank in many ways. Individuals give food, money, and time as volunteers.
Hunters supply wild game, ranchers donate sides of beef, gardeners give produce. Marlis has even gone to pick apples in a back yard and canned applesauce and jam.
"I have yet to see anything we can't use," said Marlis.
"It used to be that every church had food in the basement [to give away]. This is a community food bank. It's all our responsibility."
Big Timber Food Bank
Suite D, #10 Bridge Street or #11 River Street
Monday and Friday, 1 pm - 5 pm