Helena's Community Food System Assessment is Underway

By Michal DeChellis

AERO’s Montana Food Economy Initiative (MFEI), supported with funding from WSARE, officially launched a three-year program of Community Food System Assessment work in May of 2022. Through 2025, we are conducting Community Food System Assessments (CFSAs) in Helena, Fort Belknap, and Billings. Supported by MFEI’s Program Manager, Michal DeChellis, and a regional Abundant Montana Local Food Coordinator, each community will engage in nine months of community food system assessment work and nine months of support in project design and implementation. To learn more about why we are facilitating Community Food System Assessments, check out Part 1 of this blog published in our March 2023 Newsletter. 

Here in Part 2, we continue our MFEI program update by describing the CFSA process in more detail and sharing about our work in the Helena community so far.

What is the CFSA process?

Each Community Food System Assessment runs a total of 18 months and is designed to bring together stakeholders from all sectors of the food system to accomplish the following:

  • Develop a common understanding of what a functioning food system in a community looks like;
  • Identify what the community’s assets and areas of opportunity are;
  • Explore how to leverage the community’s current assets to best advantage, including to fill any gaps identified;
  • Clarify the community’s goals for a more functioning food system;
  • Prioritize steps for a path forward;
  • Develop community relationships and networks for sustainable momentum.

Each CFSA has two phases. In Phase 1 (months 1-9), the AERO team gathers primary data from the local coalition members, as well as through one-on-one stakeholder interviews, a series of community surveys, and a community listening session. Secondary data will come from government and agency sources. The AERO team then helps the local coalition process this data to devise a set of priority areas and an action plan for moving forward towards the goals the community has identified in support of a more functioning and food secure local system. When possible, the coalition will also seek to support work that is already occurring within priority areas. In Phase 2 (months 9-18), the regional Abundant Montana Local Food Coordinator supports the coalition and community in a project design and implementation process. A key intention of the AERO team throughout the process is supporting the community developing lasting networks and partnerships for sustained momentum in enhancing the community’s food and nutrition security.

Getting started with Helena’s CFSA

In May of 2022, we officially started our work by convening a statewide MFEI Advisory Board to refine the CFSA process and content in support of ensuring success in a Montana context. The Advisory board, which met three times, included Kate Wright (Open and Local), Jim Barngrover (Timeless Seeds), Gillian Thornton-Andrews (Thunder Road Farm), Elle Ross (Helping Hands Food Bank in Hardin), Kimberley Lloyd (Harvest of the Month Community Coordinator for St. Peter’s Health), Michele Schahczenski (Yellowstone Valley Food Hub) and AERO staff members. 

We then began our first CFSA in Helena by recruiting a coalition of food system stakeholders in the region. This process, led by Michal and supported by Sydney Dickinson, our Helena-based Local Food Coordinator, lasted three months and culminated in a group of 15 individuals and organizations signing-on to represent a diversity of knowledge and experience in the food system sectors of production, processing, distribution, consumption and resource management.

Helena Coalition Members:

Dan and Chelsi Bay, The Hopper

Lon Betchel, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church Hunger Task Force

Les Clark, Helena Community Gardens

Margaret Corcoran, Founder Benny’s Bistro

Lisa Esquivel, Helena Indian Alliance

Samantha Ferrat, MFU Helena, Farmer/Rancher

Dianna Hammer, Helena Citizens Council, City Conservation Board

Nina Heinzinger, Garden Manager St. Mary’s Church, County Sanitarian

Mark Juedeman, Resilient Helena, Sleeping Giant Citizens Council

Kim Lloyd, St. Peter’s Hospital (MFEI Advisory Board)

Sarah Sandau, Healthy Communities Coalition

Andrea Sarchet, Finn Creek Farm/MDA

The Coalition began meeting as a cohort in November of 2022, and has met in-person three times since then at the Lewis and Clark Library in Helena. A first priority for the Coalition was defining the geographic region that they wanted to include in the assessment. This area essentially captures where food is flowing from and to in the region. The Coalition identified most of Lewis and Clark County, Jefferson county south to Boulder and Broadwater county to Tosten (shown above).

They then turned their focus to discussing the current state of the food system sectors (production, processing, distribution, consumption, and recovery) in their geographic area. Discussion centered on what is currently happening, what is going well, where are challenges and barriers, and what are areas of opportunity. As the Coalition gains a better understanding of their food system status, the AERO team is helping to identify asset areas in the Greater Helena community beyond food system sectors that can be utilized to support food system development.

Also underway are a series of close to 20 stakeholder interviews with local businesses, farmers market managers, school district food service personnel, and community conservation, food access and indigenous organizations to expand perspectives and enhance insights. All this work supports the Coalition developing a set of community surveys that will engage the general public, including consumers, producers and food businesses to share their thought, needs, interests and feedback on Helena’s food system. 

“As a participant of the Community Food Assessment I have to say I’ve been impressed with the thoroughness of the project and the ability AERO has had to collaborate with a wide-range of community area partners. Staff have really provided an inclusive environment for an important discussion here in Helena and have brought together partners who have been working on these issues for years – just not together! I’ve heard so many participants say they’ve learned so much from participating in the assessment and I really look forward to what comes out of it.”

Kim Lloyd, St. Peter’s Health

The Greater Helena assessment will be completed in August 2023 with priority areas and an action plan. The work will then transition into implementation. Stay tuned for updates!

Looking Ahead

In addition to the Helena CFSA, the work in Fort Belknap has also begun. This CFSA is in partnership with the Nakoda Aaniiih Economic Development Corporation (NAEDC) and is directly supported by Randi Fetter, NAEDC’s Food Sovereignty Coordinator. Randi will act as the Local Food Coordinator in the region to help build out the coalition, provide context and key data, and help organize meetings. We will begin the CFSA process in Billings this fall. 

We will continue to share about our Community Food System Assessments as our work continues!


Alternative Energy Resources Organization

Mailing address: PO Box 1558, Helena MT 59624-1558

Physical address: 32 S Ewing St #314, Helena MT 59601