On a scorching Tuesday morning, a group of teenagers was carefully washing the dirt off the stalks of root vegetables they had just pulled from the soil of the community garden behind Flathead Valley Community College when Sarah Bergford made a confession: she had never eaten a raw turnip.
“This is totally new to me,” Bergford, a 28-year-old staff member for the Flathead Youth Home said, plucking a turnip off the table, before eyeing it and taking an audible bite.
With raised eyebrows, Leana Gardner, 15, watched her and asked, “Does it taste good?”
Bergford chewed thoughtfully before replying.
“Yeah, it tastes like a radish,” she said. “Well, good to know I like turnips now.”
Across the rest of the garden, teens from Montana Academy and the Flathead Youth Home worked at clearing thistle with hoes, cutting cilantro, watering raised beds and pulling more turnips and red beets the size of tennis balls. Tomatoes, garlic, peas, corn, beans, pumpkins and squash also grow there.
“We want to clean the greens too, so they look real pretty,” Gretchen Boyer, the transition house director for Montana Academy who was overseeing the work, told the students picking turnips and beets.
“Can you eat turnip and beet greens?” a student asked Boyer.
“You can eat both of them,” she replied.
The vegetables students harvested that morning were heading to the Flathead Food Bank, and it is among the many services to broadly fall under the umbrella of a new nonprofit called “Nourish the Flathead.”
“Nourish is an organization that wants to connect people to local food and we’re working at doing that slowly and surely,” Boyer, also a Nourish board member, said.
A loose network of community organizers, educators, farmers and business leaders comprise Nourish the Flathead, many of whom have been working for decades in the Flathead – long before farmers’ markets and the local food movement were in vogue – to increase both the number of people growing their own food, and demand for food produced here in the valley and elsewhere in Montana.
Like Bergford discovering the fragrance and crunch of a fresh turnip, those working through Nourish and other groups believe spreading local food is, in large part, simply a matter of making it accessible to consumers: Its flavor and quality is self-evident.
“There’s a belief that we have that the further your food travels, the more it loses,” Boyer said. “If we can try and help people’s access to food that we can grow in the valley, it will keep more money within our economy.”
The FVCC community garden, with plots available to those who want to learn or need space to garden, falls into one of Nourish the Flathead’s three priorities: increasing access to gardening. Another priority, Farm to Fork, aims to get more locally grown food into restaurants, stores and institutions like schools. That work is done primarily by another organization, Farm Hands, which is responsible for the production of maps outlining the location of local farms, as well as the proliferation of the “Who’s Your Farmer?” bumper stickers emblazoned on cars all over the Flathead.
The third priority’s goal is to engage young people in growing and distributing local produce and to help them understand food systems. One component of that was the work teens do in the FVCC garden; another took place later that day at the Whitefish Farmer’s Market, where Andrew Eskenazi, 18, worked at a booth selling the pesto, salsa and salad dressing he made using local ingredients.
Eskenazi is one of Nourish’s “Young Edgy Producers,” and prepares the value-added food products in the kitchen of Montana Coffee Traders in Kalispell, which also uses his sauces in the dishes it serves.
“I’ve always had a passion for making food, but never actually worked in a restaurant,” he said, adding that he was accepted at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, where he plans to enroll this fall.
“I’m the best at the pesto,” he added.
Eskenazi was joined by other young people working a crowded booth providing blue, $2-tokens to those participating in SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), so those using food stamps can shop at farmers’ markets in Whitefish and Columbia Falls.
“A lot of SNAP recipients are hesitant to shop at Farmers’ Markets because they think it’s more expensive,” May Conley said. “It seems that every time they come, they continue to come back.”
Conley, who says she became passionate about local food working at the FVCC garden, also oversees the SNAP 2 program, which provides an additional $5 credit, so someone using $20 in SNAP dollars can buy $25 in food.
“There’s a lot of people that qualify,” Conley said. “A lot of people seem to not realize that they qualify.”
Barb Brant, who chairs the Nourish the Flathead board, stands at the back of the booth watching the teens at the front interact with the farmers redeeming SNAP tokens. She noted the SNAP program allows those people receiving help with food costs to turn around and support the farmers in their community by buying produce from them.
Brant, who has been promoting local food in the Flathead for decades, believes Montana’s economy would benefit, along with the strength of its communities, from developing more processing facilities: for mills to produce flour, slaughter houses for meat, additional dairy farms to produce more local milk. In 1950, she said, Montanans grew and processed 70 percent of the food they ate; that number today is around 5 percent, with those processing facilities located in distant cities.
Brant exudes energy, and is clearly encouraged by the explosive popularity of farmer’s markets throughout the valley, as well the growing numbers of restaurants seeking out locally-sourced ingredients, because their customers demand it.
“We really want to see that change,” she said. “And I think we’re changing it.”
But she is perhaps most encouraged by “having young people that are really passionate and interested in what we do,” and says she looks forward to the day when she can, “pass the torch so we can sit on the porch.”
“This will carry on,” Brant added. “I think youth involvement is really a sign of our success.”
For more information, visit: http://nourishtheflathead.org.
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