MFEI North Flathead Update, Summer 2019

AERO is inspired by the work which continues in each of the MFEI regions: Malta, Bozeman, Helena, and the North Flathead. In the quarterly Sun Times of 2019, we will provide an in-depth update about each region. In the Spring issue, Kate Wright wrote about efforts in Bozeman and here we cover the North Flathead. Look out for updates on Malta & Helena in forthcoming issues.

For a small group of food producers and food advocates in the Flathead, involvement in the AERO-led Montana Food Economy Initiative (MFEI) was a revelatory experience. With funding from a Western SARE planning grant, MFEI tasked four regional teams across the state with taking a systematic look at the state of the local food system in their area and identify unique challenges and opportunities for further developing their systems. Led by Brooke Bohannon of The Wicked Good Farm, the North Flathead-based team was able to identify gaps and bottlenecks that prevent or complicate the functioning of a local food system and opportunities from improving the system. Now the hard work has begun to address those gaps and bottlenecks.

Some of the gaps they found will sound familiar, especially to small farmers, ranchers, and food entrepreneurs. These include challenges of working with large institutions like hospitals and schools, insurance and liability issues, marketing to grocery store chains, and overcoming the harsh seasonality of the Montana climate. Yet the biggest gap is the one they saw when they looked around the table in the early MFEI planning meetings and saw mostly producers. Because a functional local food system includes everyone associated with food, that meant that other system stakeholders, including processors, distributors, food waste recoverers and consumers, both commercial and individual, needed to be included in the conversation. So, the Flathead Working Group did just that, with a community brainstorming session at the Museum School in Kalispell last April. The conclusions from this process, and follow-up sessions at the 2019 Free the Seeds event, were clear:

(1) the desire is strong for a thriving local food economy and a resilient system that emphasizes values, including human health and
nutrition, food access and security, safe and clean environment, and community resilience;
(2) enhancing the system requires building relationships and connecting stakeholders; and
(3) making these connections and building these relationships requires a unified, cohesive voice for effective outreach and education across all sectors, and this does not yet exist.

With the phrase “If you eat, you’re in” at the front of their minds, the North Flathead leadership team is launching a brand new group to carry on the work of recruiting local stakeholders and building these relationships. Tentatively named Glacier FEAST–Farmers & Eaters Achieving Sustainability Together–the first step for the nascent organization will be initiating a public education and outreach campaign. One goal of the campaign is recruitment of participants to help create a cohesive voice and unified action, because according to Flathead team member Robin Kelson, “We want to bring everyone to the table, and most people don’t yet realize that there is a table, let alone that they belong there”.

Another goal is to advance a values-based ethic among consumers; to promote the spending of food dollars with local, sustainable producers. This promotion is especially important today, as marketers latch onto the term “local” and risk stripping it of meaning and value through “greenwashing”.

First up for Glacier FEAST is a fundraising and awareness-raising Farm to Table dinner at Two Bear Farm in Whitefish currently scheduled for August (specific date TBD). Special guest Bob Quinn will give a talk on his book Grain by Grain during the dinner. The following day, Bob Quinn will host a breakfast specifically for local farmers, to answer questions and lead a discussion on implementing systems that enhance building resilient farm and food systems.

Registration details are forthcoming, and will be shared with AERO members as soon as they become available.

Alternative Energy Resources Organization

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

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