02/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Montana Food Efforts a Good Model for Hard Times

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.

To 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 an impact.

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.

Mary 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.

Per 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.

Like 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 initially.

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 partners.

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 transformation.

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 elsewhere.

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.

The 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.

Per Grow 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."