Food service

Montana Key Clubbers help the hungry one can at a time.

By Julie Saetre 

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Members of the C.M. Russell High School Key Club in Great Falls, Montana, spend a lot of time thinking about food. That’s because 10,000 people in Cascade County, where Great Falls is located, are food insecure—out of a population of less than 60,000.

About nine years ago, the Key Club launched a food bank for C.M. Russell students living on the streets. Parents embraced the concept, then the community joined in, and today every school in the district features a food bank for students.

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But the club’s focus didn’t fade after that success. For the past five years, C.M. Russell Key Clubbers have participated in CANtastic, an annual fundraiser for the Great Falls Community Food Bank, which serves more than 65 organizations. Participating groups construct “sculptures” from cans of food. Judges evaluate each one and hand out honors, and the food bank then receives the cans. Lots and lots of cans.

For their 2017 structure—a cheerful Mr. Potato Head—Key Club members purchased 1,600 cans of food, using funds they raised by selling concessions at high school basketball games. A nearby Buffalo Wild Wings helped by donating 20 percent of one night’s sales to the Key Club’s effort. The whimsical sculpture was the latest in a series of creations that have included a Key Club bell, a football helmet and a pair of rubber duckies.

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“The rubber duckies and Mr. Potato Head were because of my classroom,” explains Mike Lathrop, advisor of the Key Club for nearly 20 years. “I teach physics, and physics is a hard-core, really dry subject. And so if I bring a little sense of levity and frivolity to the subject, it lightens the mood and doesn’t become such a tortuous thing to learn.”

Building the sculpture, however, is serious business. Each team receives help from an architect, who drafts a construction blueprint. Then club members must meticulously follow the instructions, a somewhat daunting task requiring three to four hours of careful can placement.

“It really is nerve-wracking at the beginning,” Lathrop says. “That first layer is what builds everything else. So we take our time, we count the cans, we lay it out, we make markings on the floor, know exactly where everything’s going to go.”

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The build-out has become a legend of sorts among club members and Lathrop’s other students.

“Last year, my physics students heard about it, and they wanted to join in the fun. I said, Yeah, come on, guys, I’m not going to turn away any volunteers who want to help do nice things for other people.”

This year, the club’s creation took home an honorable mention from CANtastic judges, but more importantly, the event raised more than $40,000 for the community food bank.

“The whole food bank thing,” Lathrop summarizes, “is near and dear to our hearts.”

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