Last fall, while the financial market experienced a kind of
volatility that had nearly everyone drawing parallels with the Great
Depression, I had the privilege of participating in the Western
Regional Assembly on Farm-to-School, which was sponsored by Ecotrust. A large group gathered in Portland, Oregon to share information, develop strategies and network around the issues of
good food for schools, institutions and communities.
many people, farm-to-school/farm-to-cafeteria, school gardens and
attempts to create local food systems are somewhat of a novelty. Here's
the line of thinking...Sure, it's important to provide healthier food
options to youth and communities, and to teach them about agriculture
and the food system. And it's important to try to eat locally sourced
foods as much as possible, for many reasons. But mostly, these
activities lie largely outside of the "big-E" economic and the "big-A"
agricultural system. They are simply too small in scale to make much of
What I learned about this topic has shifted my
thinking in fundamental ways. Local food systems -- including
farm-to-institution programs -- can mean real money for local farmers,
local food processors and local/state economies.
And the state of Montana has an excellent model for this.
Stein, who is on the faculty of Montana State University, recently
shared information with me about what's going on in Montana in terms of
needs and opportunities. She described an area of acute poverty that
has developed on the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains, and in
reservation counties. I did some research of my own and was astounded
to learn that some of the poorest counties in the United States are in
Montana. Rural residents have been struggling there for years. History
repeating itself? Perhaps. While 1929 marked the beginning of the Great
Depression for Main Street America, rural residents had been struggling
for nearly ten years prior to that, since the conclusion of WWI. Then,
as now, rural struggles too often go unnoticed in the United States.
Stein, through the 1950s, Montana produced about 70% of the food its
residents consumed. That figure has fallen to 10%, and the state is
perilously - some would argue dangerously - dependent upon food that is
shipped in, much of it via trucks. A frequent observation is that
Montana is one truck driver strike away from food insecurity.
many other states, Montana's attempts to recreate a more local and
sustainable food system have been hampered because of the loss of
nearly all the food processing infrastructure in the last fifty years.
When we created a meta/mega food system in America, one of the
casualties was local food processing. What Montanans grow has changed
over the years, too, and the agricultural product is less diversified
today than in the past. Montana has become a commodity-based
agricultural system, producing mostly grains and beef cattle that are
shipped out of state for processing and distribution. Ironically,
Montanans probably import processed grains and meat that they produced
It's not just a lack of processing infrastructure that
hampers the effort to eat more locally sourced foods. It is also
federal school lunch policy. "With the way the commodities programs are
currently structured, there is a massive barrier for K-12 schools to
source these commodity products locally," MSU's Stein says. "Montana is
a beef state, and yet it's almost impossible for our schools to access
locally-produced beef, because districts can't specify local beef
within the federal commodities program." Nor can they get cash in lieu
of commodities to buy local beef. (This is a policy area that incoming
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack could influence, by the way, as federal school lunch programs fall under the purview of the United States Department of Agriculture).
Grow Montana seeks
to change this food system and revitalize the state's economy. Grow
Montana is a broad-based coalition whose purpose is "to promote
community economic development policies that support sustainable
Montana-owned food production, processing, and distribution, and that
improve all of our citizens' access to Montana foods." The coalition is
coordinated by the National Center for Appropriate Technology, which is
based in Butte, Montana, and which is also one of the coalition's
Grow Montana Director Nancy Matheson says of their
model, "We're looking to use the local food movement as a way to
transform and revitalize Montana's economy, specifically the rural
economy." She is particularly interested in hearing from others who are
working on topics central to rural food systems and economic
Grow Montana works on multiple levels. It
encourages conversations with communities, entrepreneurs, farmers and
ranchers, identifying needs and opportunities. Matheson says, "The
message is coming from the grassroots, and we take it on a collective
basis to the state level." And Grow Montana's policy work is having
real economic impacts, because its members recognize the real
opportunities that exist. Unlocking the Food Buying Potential of
Montana's Public Institutions - Towards a Montana-based Food Economy is
a study that provides information about one Grow Montana strategy that
impacts farm-to-school programs, and could inform this kind of work
On the ground, Grow Montana's work is equally
impressive. The organization uses a FoodCorps to accomplish vital
economic and human goals. FoodCorps members -- who are VISTA volunteers
-- deploy to create and develop farm-to-cafeteria programs in local
schools and colleges. Through these programs, K-12 schools and colleges
buy locally-grown food. This strengthens Montana's agricultural
economy, while also strengthening the prospect of community health by
serving local, healthy and delicious food to youth.
FoodCorps work is coordinated by Crissie McMullan, who traveled with
this year's FoodCorps members (hundreds of miles via a van) to the
Western Regional Assembly in Portland. One of the real "goose bump"
moments at the gathering was when the Montana delegation was asked to
stand. These incredible young volunteers -- who are doing such
important and ground-breaking work in sustainable food systems --
earned an enormous and sustained round of applause.
Montana Director Matheson, FoodCorps also enables the larger
organization to "develop strategies that we can test in the real world,
on the ground...strategies that inform our policy work." Food Corps
volunteers track statistics about the amount and value of local food
purchased for their programs; valuable information is being gained. And
dollars are staying in Montana because of the program. The economic
impact is real.
In honor of the Montana program, which provides a
unique model we ought to consider implementing in other locales and
states -- and which has inspired me enormously -- I'm including their
tagline with the one I use to define my work as a Victory Grower.
"Montana Food for Montanans.""A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."