Founder and Leader of Essential Eats Distributors
By Elizabeth Pachus
August 5, 2021
“You know, it’s beautiful. But there was no food in the fridge”
– Sara Wecker on spending a night with members of The Crow tribe in Montana
“When you let people do what they're good at, rather than telling them what to do, and then supporting the good that happens rather than saying ‘you did it wrong’…it’s a different way to work.” When asked how she solves problems, this is how Sara Wecker, founder and leader of Essential Eats Distributors, responded. Fresh off of an 800-mile road trip across Montana to check in on food deliveries across the state, Sara settled into her chair and smiled through the Zoom window. Some rustling to the lower left side off-her screen brought a smile to her face as she reached down and pulled up a beautiful black puppy, (Bianca Rocks Above, named after a local school principal), to sit on her lap. Essential Eats Distributors is a volunteer-based, virtual nonprofit that provides resources to Indigenous-led programs in Montana. Thoughtful and collected, Sara’s selfless determination to make each day a little better for local communities was evident right off the bat.
No stranger to activism, Sara recounted, “One of my first family memories is going to a memorial protest for Martin Luther King Jr.” Now a mother to five children and wife of 34 years to her husband, Sara has continued to embody her family’s values of community service and grassroots organizing throughout her entire life. From The Vietnam War peace movement to homelessness and the D.C. statehood campaign to now food insecurity and health disparities in Montana, she has put in her best effort to make an impact for causes she believes in.
“I see incredibly beautiful places. I have met many incredible people. And like with you, [I] have also seen incredible amounts of generosity from Indigenous people and others as we work together to serve our communities.”
Sara originally volunteered with Missoula High School on a take-home food program for high school students in difficult situations. A chance meeting with a woman at an art show during that time informed her that a small food pantry many families had depended on had shut down right before the holiday season. An activist by nature, Sara quickly realized she could utilize her food contacts and help. She pulled together a truckload of Christmas boxes of food. “I can't remember how many there were, 75 or 100, but they were gone in 15 minutes. And it was very serious,” Sara told me, while also crediting the assistance from volunteers in the area who showed up to help.
After the Christmas boxes delivery, Sara began talking to the Blackfeet Commodity Center, which was acting as the local food delivery center. “The next fall, I formed an official nonprofit and set it up to serve the area of Heart Butte, Montana.” Located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation south of Browning, the remote nature of the area means they can have unplowed roads for 30 miles in each direction and can be buried in giant snow drifts. Sara began talking with local folks and met a family willing to handle the distribution. Her next task was getting the food—produce from a local Hutterite colony and meat from a meat packer or Walmart would comprise 15-pound boxes of food to feed the families. “We had a couple of trials and errors,” she reminisced with a proud smile on her face, “but that’s what we ended up doing.” The small-scale success meant an expansion was underway and soon Sara’s Essential Eats Distributors was serving all the outlying communities: almost 300 families a month. Then, the pandemic hit, and with the governor refusing to support unemployment or pantry relief, a new set of problems arose.
Montana’s vast size and scattered population brings a unique set of challenges. However it has also enabled non-profits and grassroots organizations such as Essential Eats Distributors to build strong relationships with local leadership. For example, Sara said, “You might actually know your representative, and you can actually go testify… The mayor of Missoula is on our board, and our board has a member from each nation on it.”
Adept at navigating complex issues and various tribe relationships, Sara is a decisive and deliberate leader. She focuses her efforts on the aspects of community support she can control, like ensuring only high quality goods are being delivered, be it fresh produce, Easter baskets, bicycles or Christmas boxes. Once the goods are sent to the distribution centers, tribal leaders decide how best to allocate supplies to support the community. She credits this methodology as crucial to her success and her ability to work with the tribes across the state. “There is a lot of racism, there's a lot of struggle, there's a lot of anger, and there's a lot of reasons to be angry. So I've had to grow a thick skin,” Sara recounted with a strong determination in her eye. She’s thankful to have representation from each nation on her board and close working relationships with other groups, such as the Diabetes Prevention Program, which act as the bridge between the food she procures and the distribution within the communities.
Her work with Essential Eats Distributors has now surpassed solely working towards food security and has expanded to include other ways to provide for those living on tribal land, such as a new bike program where they have, to date, provided over 1,200 bikes for children on reservations. Along with the joy of a new bike, Sara hopes this will keep the children on a healthy lifestyle path, as diabetes is a large issue in the communities. She is thankful for the network of supporters she has, from a team of eight women working on grassroots organizing and fundraising, to a successful partnership with Walmart which offers her discounted prices.
When asked what the biggest issue she faces today is, Sara said, “There are so many dynamics going on between different clans and history—all the terrible things that we did to them and still continue to do.” The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these issues, with Sara citing the much higher death rate for Indigenous people living in Montana than white men. Access to healthcare, mental health resources, and job opportunities have also been difficult in the tribal nations, and there are not many nonprofit organizations who work in the same areas as Essential Eats Distributors.
A recent visit to The Crow Nation gives an in-depth look at the unique challenges facing many of the communities she works with. Sara described, “I stayed at a house that had at least ten people in it, and only one person qualified for a stimulus check. And then it was his job to throw the twins a birthday party, and they spent $400 on the birthday party. So that's kind of just an example of how resources aren't necessarily available the same way. Everybody thinks everybody signed up for food stamps, but that is not true. There are all kinds of people who just aren't even on the grid, and they're just living in a house packed with people.” Still, Sara continued, recognizing the differences in values which should be celebrated and respected, saying, “But, you know, if you really, actually tried to acknowledge other people's value systems, rather than always placing mainstream values on other people, it makes it a lot easier to understand why choices are made.”
So what’s next for Sara Wecker and Essential Eats Distributors? Sara explained, “We're looking to start a cattle herd as we grow as an organization and really try to address food sovereignty on tribal lands. And this is an idea that's been greeted with enthusiasm by the people at Fort Belknap and others.” Always on the lookout for ways to be more effective and let the people of the tribal lands take charge, Sara remains tenacious and creative in her endeavours.
“It's amazing what you can do with a phone and computer,” Sara said. Like The Farmlink Project, Essential Eats is an entirely virtually-run nonprofit. The platform comes with a unique set of challenges as well, but Sara credits the connective ability to the growth of her impact as well. “When I started this project, I was able to think about it totally differently than any other project I've worked on before. And it's been great fun. And as you all know, virtual volunteer organizations can be very successful,” she told me. She fondly remembers one of her earlier endeavors into activism, working in Washington in the early 80s on the D.C. statehood campaign and how much has changed since the times where she would sit going through telephone books finding people’s zip codes to mail them letters. “We literally would sit and do that for hours, hours and hours and just how different the world is and how much easier it is to connect [now],” she stated.
At the end of the day, Sara remains steadfast in her work helming her non-profit. “We’re just trying to help people have a better day,” she said, a theme reaffirmed through every detail of her work ethic and organizational leadership. Her matter-of-fact approach to finding what works, giving the tribes control over the distributions, and simply doing the hard work behind the scenes, is making an impact and only continuing to grow. Sara Wecker will continue doing what she’s good at -- putting in hard work to make someone's day even just a bit better -- and supporting others doing the same in her community for a long time to come.