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How to be a true Missoula locavore

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Now you've done it. You're an earnest locavore who's moved to Montana, where winter never seems to end and the prospect of getting fresh, local food appears dim. Or, perhaps, you've landed here after being brought up on McDonald's and Taco Bell in some concrete jungle, and have never once considered the economic, environmental and cultural benefits of eating local. (First hint, neighbor: It's time to reconsider how you grub.)

Either way—seasoned locavore or greenhorn—you're in luck. Around Missoula, the Flathead and the Bitterroot valleys, eating local is pretty easy if you know where to go. Here we give you some of the easiest ways to fit right into the burgeoning foodie scene.

Saturday morning markets

Saturday mornings are for lovers—lovers of coffee, baked goods, street musicians and, of course, local food. If you head down to the Farmers' Market at the north end of Higgins Avenue you'll discover tables overflowing with seasonal fruits, vegetables, honey, baked goods, flowers and plants. At the Clark Fork River Market, under the Higgins Avenue bridge, you'll also find Flathead cherries, wild fish, local eggs, cheese, pork, beef and bison. Both markets run until the third Saturday in October.

Just remember to loiter—Missoula markets are a social gathering. Vendors easily chat you up with recipes and tips. Friends linger at tables and lounge in the grass. Even if you know exactly what you're looking for, it's best to wander.

Play in the dirt

Community garden plots are all the rage in Missoula, which means getting one can be a challenge. While Missoulians are known for being late to everything, in early April, when community plots go up for grabs, people show up early. Still, the network of gardens—which includes Orchard Gardens Community Gardens, ASUM Community Gardens and Northside Gardens, among others—expands every year, and if you want it bad enough, chances are you'll get in on the action. Community gardens remain popular because of onsite tools and easy watering, as well as the plethora of resources provided by Garden City Harvest, the nonprofit that manages the plots. It's not 40 acres and a mule, but it's enough food for a household.

Work for your spinach

If you're happy not being in charge of your own plot, but still willing to put in some sweat equity, the Volunteer for Veggies program allows you to work in a community garden and get produce in return. You can either work and take home veggies on a daily basis, or work all summer and stockpile your hours for an end-o-year mega harvest if you're the canning type. Not into getting dirty? The PEAS Farm, Orchard Gardens and River Road all have CSAs (community supported agriculture), which means you can buy a share and get weekly allotments of fresh produce often amounting to 200 pounds each season (you can choose to buy in for flowers and eggs, too).

Home garden

If you're lucky enough to have land you can garden on, even if it's just a patch outside your in-town apartment, go for it. Don't know squat about gardening? A new volunteer-based group called 1000 New Gardens (which includes several master gardeners) will actually come to your house and help you tear up grass, provide you with tips and set you up with all the resources you'll need to be the green thumb you've always wanted to be (1000newgardens.wordpress.com). If you're well on your way to backyard cultivation, you could consider buying a chicken or two from the PEAS Farm (they'll give you good pointers on how to raise them). Yep, chickens. For eggs or meat, backyard chickens these days scream "locavore" like no other trend.

Missoula Co-op

The Missoula Community Co-op (1500 Burns St.) looks like a small grocery store, but it's packed. You can find local meats, dairy products (including Lifeline Farm products from the Bitterroot Valley), and produce, plus a nice little bulk section. You have to be a member to buy (though you can "try out" the store a couple of times before committing), which means you pay a fee and volunteer work hours. Lifetime memberships are $125, but those qualifying for assistance can get a substantially lower rate. Membership fees drive down prices, so the groceries stay pretty cheap. And the real reward is that people of all economic levels and backgrounds work side-by-side to keep the Co-op running.

Eat out

When you go into Biga Pizza (241 W. Main), you'll notice that those pizzas listed on the specials board mimic what's growing in people's gardens. Winter sees squash, chutneys and sausages, while other seasons bring local arugala, morel mushrooms and fresh peppers. Places like Scotty's Table (131 S. Higgins), The Pearl Café (231 E. Front St.), The Catalyst (111 N. Higgins), The Hob Nob Café (531 S. Higgins) and The Red Bird (120 W. Front St.)—just to name a few—are also pretty proud of their local selection, so take the time to ask what's from close-by on their menu.

Good food shopping

Beyond memberships and restaurants, the Good Food Store (1600 S. 3rd St. W.) is the hub of local food shopping, though other supermarkets around town are slowly getting into the game (country of origin labeling has made it easier to find local food in chain stores). At the Good Food Store you'll find plenty of organic food from elsewhere, but it's just as easy to find in-season produce, meat and fruit from in and around western Montana. Winter months make eating local tough in Montana, so be prepared. The Good Food Store offers canning and preserving classes just in time for the cold snap. You'll be proud to pop open that can of local fare when the snow falls and other folks lament boxed dinners and less tasty, imported produce.

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