Food is the fuel our body needs to survive. It is a physiological reality. But what we choose to eat, and where we choose to get our food, has a social, economic and environmental significance that stretches well beyond our need for simple nourishment.
When we bite into a juicy hamburger, we are making a deliberate choice—and not just “Do you want cheese on that?” By sitting down at a locally owned restaurant and ordering a burger, which was raised organically in the Bitterroot Valley, we are choosing to not only support a local network of food producers, but specific methods of agriculture, pest control, animal husbandry, marketing, food packaging, transport, and so on. For the most part, the dollars we spend will stay in the wallets of our neighbors and re-circulate numerous times in the local economy. From the farm gate to the dinner plate, those who provide that meal live, work and spend their money locally. In contrast, a quick run through the fast food drive-through supports an entirely different network of global food production and distribution.
Half a century ago nearly 75 percent of all the food Montanans ate was grown right here in the state. Today, despite some 60 million acres in agricultural production of produce, grains, and meats, that number is closer to 15 percent. In today’s global economy, food will travel thousands of miles and pass through the hands of dozens of people before reaching our plate. That system may appear to function well, but a closer look reveals its many fault lines.
For instance, Montana farmers often receive just pennies on the dollar spent on food, with the rest going to processors, packagers, marketers, shippers, and retailers. Meanwhile, consumers are left with food that has been highly processed and packaged to accommodate a vast and sprawling system.
Spend some time in the Garden City and you will realize that we are fortunate to enjoy an abundance of delicious, home-grown meat and produce. You will also discover that people here care about where their food comes from—as well as where it ends up. For those less fortunate, we have a number of individuals and organizations working diligently to provide access to food for everyone. From the large grocery stores to the many food service organizations around town, the network of food distribution is tight and waste is minimal. Missoulians are quick to share what is left over. So may we all share a place at the table and sit down to a meal of Missoula’s finest bounty.
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At the Northside Community Garden, members of the Missoula community can work their own 15-foot by 15-foot garden plot of land for a nominal charge. Part of the Garden City Harvest Community Garden Project, the garden is one of four in the Missoula area made available to the public and maintained in collaboration with the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project. “
The choice between local and global, fast food or slow, can be a difficult one. “Sometimes I just can’t help it, I can’t stay away from fast food,” says former Missoula resident Travis Thompson. “I want to be able to support local food, but sometimes I just don’t have the energy or time to do it.”
At each of these gardens a number of plots are dedicated to growing vegetables for the Food Bank,” says community garden organizer Joellen Shannon of Garden City Harvest. “This is a great opportunity for people to learn about gardening, grow their own food, and help others in the community.”
Amidst the large delivery trucks at the Orange Street Food Farm, Adeline Wakeman delivers fresh bread from Le Petit Outre bakery on a bicycle made especially for local distribution. “Using a bike is certainly better for the environment,” says Wakeman, “not to mention the fact that it is a lot more fun.” On average, food in the United States travels 1,300 miles before reaching the consumer.Recent studies have shown that in today’s global market food changes hands an average of 33 times before it reaches the shelf in a supermarket. At the Clark Fork Organics farm located on Missoula’s Westside, Nicole Jarvis, and Kim Murchison pick carrots (right). Produce from the farm is sold directly to the public at the Missoula Farmers’ Market (below), or delivered to local restaurants and grocery stores.
Despite a short growing season, many local farmers still eke out a living cultivating the land, providing fresh produce for market, grocery stores, and restaurants. It is the mission of the Good Food Store to provide local growers an arena in which to sell their products. “We have a very strong commitment to the local community,” says grocery manager Pam Clevenger.
“I don’t know that other stores prioritize it the way we do. “It can be very hard work, exasperating at times, to contact all the local growers before we have to start looking regionally for certain products,” she adds, “but in the end it is worth it. It is what we are all about.”
In 2001, the Poverello Center served more than 120,000 meals. About 325 people are expected in the dining room each day this summer, up from 150 over the winter. Overall, the number of clients rose about 20 percent last year. “We don’t just feed the homeless,” says kitchen manager Michael Lampman. “The majority of the people we serve here, around 60 percent, are working poor. We are there when their paycheck just isn’t enough.”
Lampman has more than 30 years experience in food preparation. “We are all very proud of our kitchen,” he says. “It takes a lot of work and dedication, but we feed a nutritional meal and in the end we don’t waste anything.” In fact, if the Poverello Center finds it has more food than it can use, it is distributed to a network of other service organizations, including Head Start, Missoula Youth Homes, and the Food Bank, to name a few. At the Steelhead Grill co-owners/chefs Charles Davidson and Adam Young work to strike a balance between supporting local producers and growing a business just six months old. “We do our best to use local products, but it comes at a cost,” says Davidson. “As business owners in our community, though, it is definitely worth it.” “It can be especially difficult in Montana,” adds Young. “With the short growing season what is available locally is changing all the time. That makes it difficult to have consistency on our menu and still use local products.”
Davidson and Young are doing their part outside their restaurant to support local growers. On Saturday, June 22, they are preparing 250 meals using all sustainably grown Montana foods for the Abundant Montana Feast, a celebration of local foods being organized in conjunction with the Global Justice Action Summit.
Each year the Missoula Food Bank distributes more than 250 tons of food. At their Third Street location they see approximately 10,000 visitors a year. The majority of the food they distribute comes from local grocery stores and restaurants, including Albertson’s (right) which donates from its dairy and bakery departments. According to Food Bank warehouse manager John Moss, “We have so many sources of support, I couldn’t count them all. There are definitely a lot of generous people in our town.”
Beyond Missoula, however, efforts to minimize waste often fall short. According to Moss, Americans threw away approximately 94 billion pounds of food last year, while food banks throughout the country fed more than 23 million people in need.
In Missoula we are fortunate to have numerous opportunities to participate in our local food system. Whether at a local restaurant, during the Saturday morning farmer’s market, or at the local grocer, Missoulians can find fresh and delicious food grown right in our own backyards.