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Flash in the Pan

Our foodshed, ourselves



Remember Y2K? As dire predictions of infrastructure breakdown flooded the collective consciousness, stores were flooded with millions of armchair survivalists stocking up on potato chips and duct tape, bracing for the worst.

Meanwhile, the rednecks and the back-to-nature hippies winked at each other and snickered, because for us, every day is Y2K—and not just because we’re afraid the computers will forget what time it is. Taking responsibility for your food is an inherently satisfying thing to do, doomsday or not. And while Y2K alerted the masses to the danger of over-reliance on faraway food sources, there are many other reasons local food is better.

For example, in order to ship food from one side of the continent to the other, we need oil. This thirst for fuel seems to get us ever more tangled in overseas affairs, encouraging terrorism and other forms of anti-American behavior, which makes us all the more vulnerable.

Meanwhile, supporting local farmers and food processors keeps your dollars around for your neighbors to earn and spend. And providing a market for locally grown produce gives landowners an alternative to selling their land to development. Unfortunately, local is not a direction in which most communities are moving, because the economics of scale have a way of pushing down supermarket prices. But here in Missoula, an ambitious project called the Missoula County Community Food Assessment is underway. The overall goal is to get a grip on our community’s food security scene, and the first step in this process is to take stock of Missoula’s foodshed. This term, a play on the word “watershed,” describes the complex network of farming, food processing, distribution, consumption and waste in a geographic region.

To guide the food assessment, a steering committee was assembled, representing a range of organizations and interests including farmers, chefs, county extension agents, public health officials, city/county planners, anti-hunger advocates, businesses and more. Then, facts and statistics were gathered on all aspects of local food, including land use, farm economics, consumption patterns, and environmental issues related to farming.

According to the study, Missoulians are spending a growing portion of our food budget eating out, the age of the average farmer is increasing, agriculture land is shrinking, farmers are spending more and more of their profits on fertilizer and pesticides, visits to food pantries and other emergency food providers are up, and local food processors have dropped by almost half in the last 40 years—remember the Mount Jumbo Potato Chip factory?

While these findings might seem depressing, there is nothing depressing about the effort to assess the scene and do something about it. And the report includes some optimistic indicators, too, such as the growing success of the Missoula Farmer’s Market.

Alongside their report, the Missoula County Community Food Assessment project has published a resource guide, entitled “Grow, Eat, and Know.” This guide presents descriptions and contact information for a bounty of stores, support groups, land trusts, non-profits and government organizations that focus on various aspects of Missoula’s foodshed.

Food assessments have been implemented in about 15 other communities around the U.S., says Neva Hassanein, professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Montana. Hassanein partnered with Maxine Jacobson in the department of social work to spearhead the food assessment. Powered by a dedicated crew of students, they are quickly moving this project from academic fancy to real-world change.

The other communities attempting similar food assessments include small progressive towns like Madison, Wisc., and large metropolises such as Detroit, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In fact, it was during the riots in South Central Los Angeles, following Rodney King’s beating, that the conceptual seeds of community food assessment were first sown. In an eerily Y2K moment, these riots closed down most food stores, and residents became alarmed at the realization of how dependent they are on supermarkets.

Based on this alarm, a group of USC students began the first community food assessment, and this research led to the book What’s Cooking in your Food System? A Guide to Community Food Assessment. For anyone interested in doing a food assessment in their own community, says Hassanein, this book is the place to start. You can find it on the Community Food Security Coalition website at

Once you have a grip on your foodshed, the next step is to decide what you want to do about it. The Missoula County Community Food Assessment project is now compiling interviews with local farmers and food processors, collecting ideas and learning what the obstacles are to strengthening our foodshed. And maybe, someday, that potato chip factory will be back in business.

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