‘Everyone needs to eat’

Elle Ross takes charge of Helping Hands Food Bank in Hardin
Andrew Turck / Big Horn County News
Thursday, July 5, 2018

Photo by Andrew Turck

Helping Hands Food Bank Director Elle Ross holds one of about 175 senior food boxes that her organization provides to those age 65 and older per month. Ross began her position on June 8 after former Director Linda Conner resigned to spend more time with her mother.

In 2013, Elle Ross arrived at St. Xavier’s Pretty Eagle Catholic School as a Jesuit volunteer. What began as a short-term stay for the former St. Louis, Missouri resident turned into a stronger bond with Big Horn County than she expected.

“I keep telling myself, ‘One more year,’” she said. “It’s been five years.”

As of June 8, Ross has taken over from Linda Conner as director of Hardin’s Helping Hands Food Bank. Ross was chosen for the position by the organization’s board, Assistant Director Sam Laci said, due to her past experience in food-related enterprises. These include her work in nutrition education for AmeriCorps from 2015 to present as both a Food-Corps representative and the Farm to School coordinator for the Hardin School District.

Recently, she organized the year-long Backpack Program, where students receive “shelf-stable” food every Friday. She intends to continue her work as Farm to School coordinator while also serving as the food bank director.

“Students get 50 percent of their calories at school,” Ross said. “When you go home, you should be getting that other 50 percent, but sometimes it’s hard when you don’t have other food in the house. It provides extra help for students.”

According to Laci, Ross brings both youth and enthusiasm to the role, and “time will tell” if the director position suits her well.

“From what I’ve viewed of her,” he said, “she’s been successful in the other areas.”

Last year, Helping Hands served nearly 2,000 households with emergency food boxes. Seventy-four percent of those households had at least one juvenile and only eight percent had someone employed. They also provided about 175 senior food boxes each month through their Senior Commodity Food Program, as well as holiday boxes for Christmas and Thanksgiving.

In taking the reins of Helping Hands, Ross will continue her work supplying food for a county whose current unemployment rate is the highest in Montana at 7.8 percent, according to the Montana Department of Labor & Industry’s June report. One of biggest challenges of the job, Conner said, was the limit by necessity of three emergency food boxes per year for residents and families.

“Some food banks, they have much larger places, and people can come every week or every month,” she said. “Certainly in the past year, with the unemployment increasing and the tribal upheaval, we’ve really been stressed with people coming in.”

Despite this issue, Conner said, “It’s been a great experience and I leave sadly.” Partway through her interview, one of the food bank’s customers made sure to give her a hug before she left.

According to Conner, she resigned in order to spend more time with her mother, who currently resides at assisted living in Delaware. She intends to continue volunteering, Conner continued, “but I need more flexibility in my schedule.”

For Ross, her new role will allow her to fuel a “passion for food access” that she developed not only in Big Horn County, but also during her first job in St. Louis as a worker at the community farmer’s market.

To help provide for those in need, she intends to collaborate with local tribal groups, health care facilities and the Montana State University Extension Office in Hardin.

“Everyone needs to eat,” she said, “[and food] is a great way of bringing people together.”

Those who would like to volunteer at Helping Hands or know if they qualify for assistance may call (406) 665-2997 or stop in at 825 W. 3rd St. in Hardin from noon to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“We are always in need of volunteers,” Laci said.


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