As local food movements have taken hold across Montana, an effort is underway to identify both detriments and efficiencies within these burgeoning community-based food systems.
This much is clear: to make a system click on all cylinders, it takes a village. But where is the village lacking? What disparate components could work together better to achieve a more cohesive interconnectedness?
These questions and others are explored by the Montana Food Economy Initiative (MFEI), which “supports the development of a regional food economy through the use of values-based supply chains and information sharing” by bringing together “people involved in all aspects of the food supply chain, from field to fork, to build collaborative partnerships and strengthen communication through regional groups and issue-specific working groups.”
The MFEI is funded through a grant and primarily facilitated by Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO), a grassroots nonprofit organization based in Helena. A coalition of producers and food-access advocates has been leading the local MFEI effort and organized a forum last April to discuss issues facing the community, identifying needs, strengths and questions.
Another forum is planned soon, and the initiative’s findings will be presented at the fourth annual Free the Seeds! event on March 2. The idea is to bring growers, processors, distributors, recyclers, consumers — as many people as possible — to the table for a discussion about how to build the best possible food system for the greater Flathead Valley.
“This is big endeavor, a multi-year endeavor,” said Robin Kelson, owner of The Good Seed Co. in Whitefish, a co-founder of Free the Seeds! and one of the primary orchestrators of the local MFEI efforts.
“This is basically building resiliency in the community from the ground up, if you will, for the food system. If you eat, you’re part of the system. It’s not just the farmers carrying the load of providing the food. It’s a community issue. It’s all of the community working together to build a robust system.”
Gretchen Boyer, executive director of Farm Hands – Nourish the Flathead and another key member of the local MFEI program, said Free the Seeds! is an ideal venue to present the findings and promote this public dialogue. The event attracts more than 1,000 attendees every year, featuring a litany of booths and workshops covering a wide range of the local foods community, from home gardeners to professional enterprises to nonprofit advocacy groups.
Boyer’s organization has an overarching mission of education and food-access promotion, which meshes with the goals of both Free the Seeds! and the MFEI.
“It’s about education and understanding the importance of everybody’s role (in the system),” Boyer said. “We really see Free the Seeds! as an opportunity to capitalize on our ability to do that education, and that’s down to learning how to start a garden and learning how to save seeds.”
The MFEI lists its goals as: “helping farmers access reliable markets and receive fair prices; developing additional capacity to process food; encouraging land preservation and sustainable farming methods; and ensuring all people, no matter where they live or their income level, have access to high-quality, locally-produced foods.”
Free the Seeds! is a program of Farm Hands – Nourish the Flathead and bills itself as a continuing “commitment to building a sustainable and resilient future for our community through real seeds, real food and real skills.”
This year’s fair, held on March 2 at the Flathead Valley Community College Arts and Technology Building, will open with the seed swap and vendor booths at 9 am. The swap lasts until noon. Workshops, booths and kids’ activities will be held from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with a 45-minute break for lunch at 12:15 p.m. Food will be available for purchase.
The event is entirely run by volunteers, and organizers are looking for more helping hands. Anyone interested can visit www.freetheseedsmontana.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call Boyer at (406) 261-5569 for more information.