Billings Food Bank Plans Expansion to Meet Demands
The Billings Food Bank is planning to expand its facilities. Sheryle Shandy, Executive Director of the Food Bank, presented their proposal to county commissioners in seeking their sponsorship for a grant to help fund the project, during a public hearing last week.
The organization, which has been providing food for the needy of Yellowstone County for the past 40 years, is requesting funds through the Department of Commerce’s Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). Since CDBG make funds available only through local government agencies, the application requires the commissioners’ approval.
Shandy explained that they are completely remodeling, refurbishing and repurposing a building owned by the Billings Food Bank across the street from Shepherd Stainless Steel at North 16th and 3rd Avenue North, which suffered about a half million dollars in vandalism last November. It is located a few blocks away from the Food Bank’s primary facility at 2112 Fourth Avenue.
While the Billings Food Bank is readily recognized for providing food to the needy of all ages with no questions asked, they also provide a vital service to the business community in training prospective employees for the food industry. They also have resources and services that help entrepreneurs trying to get food products to market, and they have services for food trucks or anyone else who needs access to a commercial kitchen. Demands for all their services have escalated greatly over the past few years.
Shandy said that in dealing with the vandalized building, which had previously served primarily as a warehouse, they decided to completely redesign and remodel it to expand the Food Bank’s capacity. The project will cost a total of about $5.5 million and will be done in stages.
A portion of the first stage, costing just under a million dollars, is nearing completion. The fact that the Food Bank already owns the land and the building helps reduce the funding they need to complete the project.
The application for the CDBG grant describes their project, said Shandy, but it does not request a specific amount. Shandy said that they recognized that there are limited CDBG funds available with many demands upon on it, so they are just hoping for some award.
Completion of the project is uncertain because of issues involving the delivery of materials and components, said Shandy, but she hopes it can be completed by next March or April at which time the Billings Food Bank will celebrate its 40th anniversary.
According to Shandy, the proposed improvements will allow the Food Bank more kitchen facilities with which to provide more education and training. It will update equipment and expand capacity. The Food Bank prepares a lot of meals for the needy in the community, on holidays and other occasions.
They saw a great need for expanded meal service over the past year as many people who were shut- in because of COVID becoming depressed, said Shandy, and delivering them meals was something the Food Bank could do.
The new facility will provide a multi-purpose commercial kitchen and additional seating for 1,000, which would increase current capacity two and a half times over their Fourth Avenue building.
Most recently plans have changed to include a café in the remodeled building. Shandy said that other businesses located in the area encouraged them to include a café because they see a need for such a service in the neighborhood.
The expansion will also require the hiring of additional employees. They currently employ six people.
The Food Bank’s services that support business growth in Billings is largely unrecognized.
Except for last year, the Food Bank trains about 250 people annually to work in restaurants and other organizations that prepare and serve food. Their training gives students real world experience and includes learning the basics of food preparation including cutting skills, how to make basic sauces or serving food safely.
It’s not a chef’s school but the students leave the program ready for internships and further training from chefs, said Shandy, who added, “There has never been a time when people couldn’t get jobs.” Good, dependable employees have always been in demand.
Whether classes will resume this year remains uncertain. Shandy said that they are trying to develop protocols that will allow them to resume classes despite the re-emerging threat of COVID. It is certainly true that with the shortage of workers, their training program is needed more than ever.
People who have popular food products, such as salsa, tamales, or jams and jellies, etc. that they want to make available for sale as the basis of a new business, find valuable support through the Food Bank, as well as the use of a commercial kitchen that is necessary to meet the standards of the health department in manufacturing their products for market. The Food Bank’s resources serve as an economical means of launching a business before they can afford their own equipment or as they test their product’s viability in the market.
Shandy said that a number of these emerging entrepreneurs of the past have gone on to great success.
Many of the local food trucks utilize the Food Bank’s facilities for cleaning and sanitizing equipment.
Providing such services is unusual for a Food Bank. The Billings Food Bank has the means to do so, explained Shandy, because the building they bought for the Fourth Avenue location had formerly been an appliance distributorship and had a full commercial kitchen. “There must be some way to use this,” they thought. When they decided to lease it as a commercial kitchen for training and emerging businesses they were only the seventh such enterprise in the nation and the only one associated with a Food Bank.