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Preparing for the annual Thompson Family Food Drive

Volunteers Vi O'Dell, right, and Ann Killoy read the labels on soup cans as they organize donations made through Butte schools last week ahead of the annual Thompson Family Food Drive for the Butte Emergency Food Bank. 

It’s that time of the year again.

Thompson Family Food Drive is happening Saturday, and this year the annual event is celebrating its 30-year anniversary and the appointment of a new lead organizer, longtime Butte business and Pepsi distributor Harrington Bottling Co.

The Thompson food drive got its start in 1988 when Jim and Margie Thompson, then owners of Thompson Distributing Inc., wanted to give back to the community. 

In its 42 years of operations, Thompson Distributing underwent several transformations until son Scott Thompson and his wife Mary sold the company to Eagle Beverage out of Great Falls. It’s a move that Scott Thompson says was “bittersweet.”

Although Thompson Distributing is entering a new chapter in its history, the legacy of the food drive that bears the company’s name lives on.

Thompson said he handpicked the Pepsi distributor as the new organizer of the food drive because of Harrington’s distribution know-how and its tradition as a family-owned company that takes care of its employees.

Harrington hasn’t yet entirely taken over as lead organization for the event. Instead, Harrington will transition into its new role over the next couple of years while the Thompson family continues to show the company the ropes.

Last year, the food drive collected 51,000 pounds of food and $45,000 in monetary donations for the Butte Emergency Food Bank. And as those numbers suggest, organizing the food drive is what Thompson likes to call “organized chaos.”

It’s a feat that requires a whole lot of logistics, he said, which is why it will take about two years for Harrington to take off its training wheels and go solo.

When Thompson approached Jim Bennett, vice president of sales and marketing at Harrington, about the transition, the two discussed renaming the food drive. But Bennett was adamant that the drive retain the Thompson name. After all, the name has become synonymous with the giving spirit.

“As many people that are involved, it’s amazing how seamless it is,” said Bennett, reflecting on the Thompson tradition. “Scott’s run this thing like a champ.”

Bennett added that Harrington is honored “to continue this effort by the Thompson family.”

The Thompson food drive has been utilizing crowdsourcing long before the term was a trendy concept.

Each year, the drive attracts around 700 volunteers, including Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Butte High students, Butte Central students, Montana Tech students, local volunteer firefighters, personnel from the 15-90 Search and Rescue, and many, many more organizations and individuals.

Volunteers meet at the Race Track Volunteer Fire Department on Grand Avenue the morning of the drive and then hit the streets of Butte around 10 a.m., walking along designated routes where they pick up bags of food that donors have left on their porches, fences and front yards. Those bags are put in trucks, which transport them to larger trucks stationed throughout the city. The donations then make their way to the Butte Emergency Food Bank on East 2nd Street.

Working the Thompson food drive will not be the only thing Harrington will be doing to help Butte families in need Saturday.

Also on Saturday, the company will be collaborating with Cherry Creek Media to put on an annual clothing drive at the Maroon Activities Center from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., when families will be able to pick up gently used clothing.

Kathy Griffith, director of the Butte Emergency Food Bank, said the Thompson Family Food Drive comes at a time when her organization is in great need of donations.

“Our shelves are looking pretty bare right now,” said Griffith, noting that Thanksgiving usually hits the bank pretty hard.

“We count on this drive to restock us,” she continued, adding that the bank won’t have another drive until May.

The Butte Emergency Food Bank serves 2,900 people in the Butte community each month through its numerous initiatives, including 400 children per week through its Backpack Program, which is supported by the Empty Bowls fundraiser.

This year the need for food assistance seems to have increased, said Griffith, which she attributes to the lack of a homeless shelter in Butte and the recent closure of national retailers. Many of the food bank’s clients work multiple jobs to get by, Griffith explained, including in retail. The closure of major retailers in Butte has meant the loss of extra income that was keeping some afloat.

This year the food bank hopes to get 55,000 pounds of food.

“If we could get there, that would be pretty awesome,” said Griffith.

As for Thompson, he said that, although his company has managed the logistics of the drive over the years, the annual event wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of the community.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Thompson. “The feeling that you get from working with (volunteer) groups in the community is just amazing.”

“I will miss that,” he continued. “There’s no two ways about that.”

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for The Montana Standard.

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