Despite overall income gains in a burgeoning economy, the number of Montanans using food banks surged from 2004 to 2005. According to the Montana Food Bank Network, which helps distribute donated food to more than 150 food shelves across the state, 214,000 people received free food last year—almost a threefold increase over 2004.
The Food Bank Network attributes the increase in giveaways to a sharp rise in gasoline and natural gas prices following the Gulf Coast hurricanes, large numbers of military breadwinners deployed overseas and escalating housing costs, especially in rapidly developing cities such as Missoula, Bozeman and Kalispell.
These rising costs apparently made it difficult for many Montanans to make ends meet, despite low state unemployment (4 percent in 2005) and strong gains in personal income in recent years. Fueled by economic growth, total personal income in Montana increased 6.3 percent from 2004 to 2005, the third-fastest growth rate in the nation.
However, those statistics obscure the fact that Montana wages are still relatively low. Last year the state ranked 42nd in median household income, according to Census estimates. A large proportion of food shelf users in Montana are the working poor; over 40 percent of the people served by the Food Bank Network belong to households in which at least one adult holds a job.