Agriculture enjoys a celebrated history in Montana, where the act of cultivating the land and producing fresh food is a tradition that continues to thrive today.
But gaining easy access to nutritious meals presents another set of challenges, a reality that prompted a local community organization to roll out a growing stable of programs to improve residents’ food needs.
The nonprofit group is called Farm Hands: Nourish the Flathead, whose goal is to address food-access issues by using local agriculture to feed underserved populations.
The group was started 10 years ago by a coordinated group of volunteers, and it runs multiple programs to assist with residents’ food needs, including farm-to-school projects and backpack programs that send children home from school with food.
Now, Farm Hands Nourish has added several new programs to its ranks, including one focused on helping keep the Blackfeet Food Bank in Browning stocked with nutritious food items.
With the Blackfeet Nourish Project, volunteers collect and deliver food and clothing to the overburdened food bank in Browning, where volunteers conducted a study after noticing it was receiving frequent repeat visitors.
According to the survey, 37 percent of people living on the Blackfeet Reservation are living below the poverty line, more than double state and national averages that hover around 15 percent.
Similarly, the percentage of people using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) was more than double the state average of 10.8 percent at 27.4 percent, and the reservation’s two sources of emergency food are overburdened.
This year, three expanded food-access programs through Farm Hands help give residents access to fresh produce at farmers markets in both Whitefish and Columbia Falls.
Through Senior Coupons, the nonprofit organization created 50 coupon books that contain packets of $2 coupons. The coupons can be used at the Whitefish Farmers Market and Columbia Falls Community Market. Senior citizens can spend the coupons on fruits and vegetables while also supporting local food producers.
The Double SNAP Program gives SNAP recipients incentives to spend their SNAP dollars with local farmers, offering them a $20 bonus after they swipe their card for a $10 purchase. The opportunity at local markets in both Whitefish and Columbia Falls has added roughly $400 per summer to an individual SNAP recipient’s food budget.
The School Coin Program distributes red plastic coins to students to spend on fresh, local food. In May, program outreach coordinator Gretchen Boyer handed out 700 coins at Muldown Elementary School in Whitefish and another 700 coins to students at Glacier Gateway School in Columbia Falls.
The students can visit the markets to spend their coins, which are redeemable for $5 worth of local produce, and at the end of the evening volunteers from Farm Hands collect the coins and reimburse vendors for the cash value.
“It is our hope that bringing school kids to our markets will help bring kids into our local food system, help them make healthy food choices and bring awareness to our food programs,” Boyer said.
The programs are funded through grants from the Whitefish Community Foundation, Glacier Bank and private donations.
To volunteer for Farm Hands or to make a donation, email Gretchen@farmhandsnourish.org.