Guest Column

Improve Food Access for Montana Families

Our state and nation have faced unprecedented hardships over the past year and a half

By Gretchen Boyer

All children across Montana deserve access to fresh, local food that nourishes their bodies and minds. At Farm Hands – Nourish, we work to build local food systems and improve food access for all members of our community, regardless of income. We believe this work is essential in creating a healthier, stronger Montana. 

Our state and nation have faced unprecedented hardships over the past year and a half. But the pandemic also brought important opportunities to evaluate existing structures, identify weaknesses, and reimagine the way we do things with regard to food systems and food access. We are seeing some progress, including greater investment of USDA dollars into local food systems. We have also seen flexibilities and streamlining of public nutrition programs, facilitating new partnerships between public programs and local growers. 

Thanks to pandemic-related flexibilities currently in place, Farm Hands has been able to utilize the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) to strengthen our summer BackPack program, reaching more than 500 kids across the Columbia Falls, Whitefish, Olney and Trego with nutritious food each weekend. Farm Hands makes it a priority to source local products for our BackPack meals whenever possible.

Through this public-private partnership, our summer BackPack program is able to reach more kids and invest additional dollars into our local food system. The modest reimbursements provided through SFSP provide program stability and allow us to be more responsive to changing levels of need. We aren’t limited by fluctuations in donations in determining how many kids we can serve. Utilizing the Summer Food Service Program has allowed us to have a greater impact in our community.

Unfortunately, the flexibility facilitating this model is only temporary. Under typical program rules, kids are required to eat Summer Food Service Program meals on site. This requirement is a burden for families who may want to grab meals on the go, or have parents pick up meals to take home to their kids. The requirement also restricts program sponsors from providing meals to take home for the weekend, as we have been able to do this summer. 

Changing this outdated and unnecessary rule, and allowing SFSP community sponsors to send meals home with families is just one small, but meaningful example of a policy change that would have a lasting impact on local families. We are hopeful that Montana’s members of Congress will take this opportunity to learn from the past year and a half and make real progress in strengthening and updating child nutrition policies, helping to improve food access for Montana families.

Gretchen Boyer is executive director of Farm Hands – Nourish.