There’s a longing these days for a return to normal—to the days when we were regulars at restaurants, rec centers and coffee shops; back when we were hugging and hanging out freely.

Unfortunately, for thousands of local people, those weren’t the good old days. There was a food crisis in Blaine County well before coronavirus hit town. Our friends and neighbors were wracked with an affordable housing crisis, widespread food insecurity and wages that have not kept pace with living expenses. Before the pandemic hit, The Hunger Coalition was providing food for 1 in 6 local people. Things were already hard before COVID-19 came to town and made life that much harder. 

The impact of the virus broke people who were holding on by a thread. Two months later, The Hunger Coalition is feeding three times as many families and distributing three times as much food, and our staff is running on three times the grit to make it happen.

Before the crisis, a United Way study estimated that 1 in 3 people in Blaine County are considered food insecure or one crisis away. That crisis is here and its financial toll has been staggering. COVID-19 has proven it’s time we strengthen our foundation.

As we feed hundreds more people than before, we’ve also welcomed hundreds of new people to our team. People have given of themselves so generously, from egg cartons and masks, to hundreds of cash donations given from the heart. Thank you. I know the kindness needed to build a better future is here. 

The day will come when our favorite businesses throw open their doors and our friends ask us over for dinner again. No doubt, this will be a reason to celebrate. But as we regain a sense of normalcy, I hope we don’t return to normal. I hope we do something far better.

Now is the time to think about how to build a better future, one that is better than the old normal. Each of us should be thinking about how the pandemic exposed our strengths and our weaknesses and how we can leverage the best of our community to address the challenges we’ll face long after the pandemic is behind us.

For our part, The Hunger Coalition has begun to transform an existing building into a community food center that will radically improve access to good food. It will be a place where people from all walks of life can enjoy a fresh approach to food security.

Our vision includes a community kitchen and dining area, next-gen food pantry, heated greenhouses and expanded farm and

garden. These parts of the whole are intended to improve the health, happiness and bottom line of everyone who participates. Inside these spaces, we envision cooking and gardening classes, community meals, collaborative advocacy work, social opportunities, a longer growing season leading to a bigger harvest, and an equitable way to access groceries.

It is written into our mission to address the root causes of hunger. To continue to give out food without going deeper would betray our purpose. It’s time we retire the Band-Aid approach in favor of something truly healing. Instead of handing out apples, let’s plant an orchard.

We’ve only just begun to sustain this vision, and we need every member of the community to be engaged in the solutions. What does a better future look like and how do we get there together? As always, I believe it begins with food—food that nourishes the body and strengthens the community. Together, we can do something bold that makes food a priority, in sickness and in health.

Jeanne Liston is executive director of The Hunger Coalition.

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