Montana’s history of agriculture goes back as far as when humans on this corner of the Earth first began cultivating the land’s bounty to feed themselves, growing food in the rich soil and planning for the future.
And that history of locally grown food continues to beckon, even now. The local-food movement, known as farm to table, is catching on in more communities with the idea that people are best served by the food grown closest to them.
Growing that food is one part of the equation, while finding access to it is another. And Farm Hands: Nourish the Flathead, a local nonprofit, hopes to do just that. The organization’s goal is to address food access issues through local agriculture, program coordinator Rose Heider said.
The group, started 10 years ago and run by a coordinated group of volunteers until Heider became the first paid employee, 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 a new program to its ranks, one focused on helping keep the Blackfeet Food Bank in Browning stocked with nutritious food items.
The Blackfeet Nourish Project started about five years ago in a relatively unofficial capacity, said Scott Brant, who helped start it through Farm Hands Nourish.
“A group of us got together and started to collect food and clothes and things on a biweekly basis and bring them over to the food bank,” Brant said. “We did this about every other week for about 18 months.”
The group eventually found itself in a regular rhythm, settling for runs to Browning every other Friday. The focus is on nutritious food, Brant said.
“Primarily, the bulk of it comes from food that we purchase at Costco, and donations from the North Valley Food Bank and (local produce farmers) have been very helpful in the summer time,” he said.
Ideally, food banks serve as sources of emergency food supplies where people can turn in tough times. But Browning’s food bank saw repeat visitors, and often, Brant said, leading to a study on the community’s food security and sovereignty, meaning the access to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced in local, sustainable ways as defined by the local people.
Food insecurity means the population is vulnerable to hunger and diseases, such as obesity, metabolic issues, and chronic illness. People in more food-insecure households are more likely to have issues with mental health, alcohol use, and smoking cigarettes.
The survey showed that 37 percent of people living on the Blackfeet Reservation are living below the poverty line, more than double the state and national averages hovering around 15 percent.
Similarly, people using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) was more than double the state average of 10.8 percent at 27.4 percent. There are two sources of emergency food on the reservation, at the food bank and at the Medicine Bear Shelter.
Brant’s own observations have shown that the fresh food his group brings over from the Flathead Valley every other week is all but gone by the time they show up again with another load.
“Here in the valley we have so much. We can certainly share it,” Brant said. “I don’t want to create the impression that the reservation is this black hole of endless need. The people have a wonderful culture and very strong family ties, and there are people who need help. Basically that’s what we’re trying to address. What we really want to do is find ways to support the food bank and make sure that the people who need to use the resources at the food bank know that it’s there.”
Farm Hands Nourish is also focusing its attention on the needs of families in the Flathead, with inclusion in farmers markets to allow people to purchase food through the federal SNAP and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) programs.
On Sept. 23, Farm Hands Nourish will partner with WIC for a special farmers market at Flathead County Courthouse West Park in Kalispell. Anyone on WIC or SNAP can use their benefits at the market, and Farm Hands Nourish will match up to $10 for each participant through the Double SNAP Dollars program.
“It’s an easy way for people to get more fresh, nutritious healthy options in their diet when they’re on a tight budget,” Heider said. “It also brings that federal funding right into the pockets of our farmers and our community members.”
The farmers market is also a place to use those benefits on food-bearing plants, so people can grow their own food as well.
These programs are already in place at the Whitefish Farmers Market taking place on Tuesdays, and people can use Double SNAP at the Columbia Falls Community Market on Thursdays as well.
The nonprofit also plans on hosting four cooking classes geared toward people with low incomes: Two at the Whitefish Food Bank (Sept. 12 and 26) and two in a third-grade class at Muldown Elementary (Sept. 28 and Oct. 5). Participants in those classes will also get to take home all of the ingredients to make the meals through the backpack program.
For more information on all of Farm Hands Nourish the Flathead’s programs and how to get involved, visit www.farmhandsnourish.org.