A Community Partnership for Local Foods

As a MTCC VISTA serving with the NCAT FoodCorps Team, I work with the Red Lodge Area Food Partnership Council, helping the school purchase local food, and educating students about how their food choices affect their health, the environment, and their community.

The Food Partnership Council formed last year after a forum on “Improving Community Well-Being through Food,” which brought in over 200 participants, and as a result the group came together to promote a sustainable food system within the community. The forum pushed the community to ask challenging questions about our local food system. How can we connect producers and consumers? What will it take to grow food at an altitude of five and a half thousand feet? How can we bring healthy, local food into the schools? Can we inspire our friends and neighbors to also get involved?

And instead of just asking these tough questions, the Food Partnership Council took action.  They set up task force groups to work on community gardens, the farmers’ market, producer-consumer connections, nutrition education, and farm to school. They applied to host a FoodCorps member, and I arrived in July, as one of nine FoodCorps members who are now working in rural communities throughout Montana.

Just like the Food Partnership Council, Montana FoodCorps began because a passionate group of people took action to address an identified community need.

The program got started in 2006 from a partnership between Montana Campus Compact’s VISTA program and Grow Montana, a statewide coalition of organizations working on food and agricultural issues. The Alternative Energy Resources Organization, or AERO, is a founding member of the coalition and has been working on developing renewable energy and sustainable food system solutions in Montana for over 37 years. AERO and the other Grow Montana organizations saw a need for on the ground volunteers who could work with schools and youth throughout the state to make food system changes on the local level.

I’ve only been in Red Lodge as a FoodCorps member for seven months, and the Food Partnership Council has only been in existence for one year, but it’s incredible how much has already been accomplished. Since getting started, the Food Partnership Council has worked to vigorously promote a sustainable food system within our community. We are connecting producers and consumers, improving school meals, organizing food related events, and setting up community and youth gardens.

Yet even with all this great work that is happening right now, I still can’t escape the notion of how connected we are to the past and the future. The students and I examine how all of the food we eat links back to the soil, a resource that must be preserved and recycled from one generation to the next. And we discuss how some of the crops they hope to plant in the new youth garden are perennials; they’ll come back year after year. Some plants will produce seed we can save after one year, and others after two. Our agricultural systems are inherently linked to the generations that came before us, as well as the many generations to come.

Breaking ground for the new Community Youth Garden in Red Lodge means that this younger generation will become the next integral link connecting the community to our local food system. Not only through their direct involvement in bringing healthy, local food into their cafeteria, but also through the excitement and curiosity they bring to the new projects.

Even in the depths of winter there is proof that Red Lodge youth are up to the challenge. Whether they are coming up with brilliant ideas for the garden, asking me if they can munch on a few more of the radishes I brought in for a taste test, suggesting that we get some worms to improve the quality of our soil, or waving me down on the street to exclaim that the spinach and basil we planted inside just germinated, these kids are the ones who constantly give me hope.

They give me hope because they remind me that the Food Partnership Council’s work to support our local food system not only looks to a past that was rooted in sustainable practices and stewardship of the land, but also to a future that will be shaped by the enthusiasm and curiosity of our youth.

So yes, the Food Partnership Council is celebrating one year of incredible work around local food in our community. But we’re also celebrating, and working to reinvigorate the local agriculture that once fed this entire region. And we’re celebrating the next generation of food leaders who are already planting the seeds of healthier eating in indoor garden boxes this winter, and who will continue to plant them in the youth garden this spring.

In Red Lodge, I’m Alyssa Charney for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO has been building sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit us online at www.aeromt.org.

This commentary aired March 1, 2012 on Montana Public Radio.

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