Montana Food Economy Initiative

AERO’s Montana Food Economy Initiative (MFEI) strengthens the network of Montana values-based community food systems to ensure producer sustainability and resilience, and support community economic, environmental, social, and human health. MFEI emphasizes coordinating cross-sector engagement across all parts of the food system (producer, processor, distributor, consumer, recovery) to support critical producer sustainability.

MFEI 2022-2025: Supporting Community Food System Assessments across Montana

Building on the outcomes from the MFEI 2020-2021 projects, and responsive to the re-awakened interest in reliable food access among community stakeholders in the wake of the public health crisis created by Covid-19, AERO received funding to support three communities in conducting in-depth, 2-month community food system assessments in their areas as a first step to improving the reliability and resiliency of their local food supply. The project also provides six months’ implementation support for the community in developing a first project towards improving their community system, following the Assessment.

Over three years, this project is conducting assessments in:

  • Greater Helena area
  •  The communities on the Fort Belknap Reservation
  • Greater Billings area.


Check out the Greater Helena Community Food System Assessment Snapshot, prepared by a cohort of 12 individuals and organizations from Broadwater, Jefferson, and Lewis and Clark counties. Pre-report 2022-2023.

MFEI 2020-2021

In 2020 and 2021, communities across the state conducted 17 different Montana Food Economy Initiative (MFEI) projects designed to connect Montanans with their local food system. From Dec 2020-Nov 2021,  MFEI projects focused on different sectors of a food system—production, processing, distribution, consumer access, and remainder resources recovery—connecting community stakeholders to support building more equitable and resilient food systems and community food webs in Montana.

On May 21, 2021, MFEI project leaders shared videos and stories describing their projects, learnings and outcomes. Find the  MFEI Spring Celebration recording here.

Spring Celebration Agenda 5:30-7:30pm


Follow along with each digital story on AERO’s MFEI Playlist if you have any trouble  streaming presentations on Zoom

1- Montana Food Processing and Marketing
The Story of Wasna-bite Crackers Development by Genesis Chavez

2- Farm to School & Early Care & Education (ECE)
Billings Farm to ECE by Lizzie Gill, NCAT Local Food Specialist, and Sheryl Hutzenbiler, Linda Carlson, Michelle Wade, Early Care Directors

Hardin Farm to School Pemmican by Elle Ross, Tashena Loudhawk, & Sloane Realbird Project Reflections

3- Montana Food Connections
Community Carrots – Gallatin Valley by Kate Burnaby-Wright
Columbia Falls Fresh Snack Friday by Nourish the Flathead team



4- Montana Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative presented by Loga Fixico, Indigenous Food Sovereignty Specialist

5- Montana Food Processing and Marketing
MSU Food Product Development Lab partnerships introduction by Dr. Wan-Yuan Kuo

Lake Trout & Food Security by Brittany Robles

Kamut Fry Bread in Safflower Oil at Rocky Boy by Jason Belcourt, Rocky Boy Sustainability Director and Quinn Organics

6- Community Food System Assessment
Butte Community Food System Assessment by the Butte Community Food Coalition

7- Renewable Energy & Inputs
Gallatin Conservation District Vermiculture 101 presented by Susan Elder, Charter Ranch Apprentice

ClosingMFEI Participants Survey

MFEI Projects

Twelve projects across Montana are part of the following project frameworks:

Community Food System Assessment

With the help of an MFEI mentor, build a community coalition to complete a community food system assessment. Assess your community food system assets to choose priority projects that your community can pursue to improve food system equity and sustainability.

Community Food System Assessment Outreach Flier

MT Food Connections: Helping producers feed their communities

With support from an MFEI mentor and community collaborators, project teams will create a pathway for local food from the farm, ranch, or community garden to the pantry, school, or senior center. Develop a local distribution system that pays producers fairly and feeds local folks. 

MT Food Connections Outreach Flier

Farm to Early Care Education

With partnership from NCAT’s Local Food System Specialist, teams can increase local food procurement, scratch cooking education, family outreach, equipment, and more for early care and education (ECE) sites that want to expand farm to ECE programming.


Renewable Energy & Inputs

Reducing inputs for community food systems.  MFEI mentors will help to reduce inputs for production on farms, ranches, or community gardens. Projects may include energy efficiency assessment, seed saving, or biochar kiln construction. MFEI can help you make your food system foundation a little bit more local, renewable, or accessible (aka. sustainable & equitable). 

MT Food Processing & Marketing

With partnership from the MSU Food Product Development Lab, we can support market research, food product development, sensory testing and more to develop food products that support sustainable farming practices, culturally-relevant and healthy diets from local Montana foods.

What does it take to build more equitable and resilient Montana food systems?

Values-informed Process


  • Are designed and implemented by the community
  • Harness cross-sector collaboration
  • Foster diversity (social/ecological)
  • Supply communities with local, nutrient-dense and culturally appropriate foods
  • Increase community sovereignty 
  • Are in support of underrepresented folks
  • Foster long term impacts & are  replicable
  • Support local livelihoods
  • Limit external inputs


MFEI community teams will build a diverse coalition and are encouraged to include a producer, a consumer, youth, elder, folks of a range of gender identities, and with identities across race and ethnicities. Building a coalition with diverse perspectives helps us to see the whole picture and allows us to draw strengths from assets across the community to make the most impact

Local Food Leader(s): At least one community leader willing to recruit a diverse team and manage the project

Stakeholders: Coalition members willing to produce a short digital story about the project, complete action plans, contribute information & ideas, and present their process / story at an MFEI Network Meeting in May.

Community Support

Mentorship support from MFEI Advisory Board

Max $1000 project mini-grant

Digital storytelling workshop Friday, January 15th 

1:1 facilitation training 

Develop community leadership skills

MFEI Projects Produce

5-min digital story to share your project with other communities

More and better cross-sector food system relationships

A statewide network of local food leaders / MFEI project participants

Project that improve community food system equity & resilience


The Montana Food Economy Initiative is AERO’s model of community food system development that coordinates cross-sector engagement from stakeholders from across all sectors of the food system (producers, processors, distributors, consumers and waste recovery) in diverse Montana communities. MFEI drives food network planning, including strategies to support local livelihoods and increase access to good food from agroecological systems for all Montanans. 

In 2016–2019, AERO’s assisted producer-led and community-driven strategic planning projects in four regions in Montana. Check out success stories from each region in our success stories blog.

Building on AERO’s regional food system development work to date, AERO set out to build a network that can reimagine a more inclusive ‘we,’  and together reform and rebuild our Montana community food systems. The MFEI Advisory Board gathered in June & July to establish shared values:

PRODUCER CENTRALITY- Respect food providers– land, water and seed protectors– their perspectives and decision-making power

CONSUMER ENGAGEMENT- Engage all community members in building food systems that serve all of the people. ‘If you eat, you’re in’ 

TRUE DIVERSITY- From farm to advisory board to grocery aisle, creating tangible, inclusive relationships across the entire food web is critical to our mission and vision.

BOUNDLESS COLLABORATION- Build bridges to foster cross-sector partnerships

COLLECTIVE RESILIENCE- From individual to local community to statewide, our success is a reflection of each others’

The MFEI Advisory Board built project frameworks and piloted projects to support communities in realizing the shared values of the Montana Food Economy Initiative. See the project frameworks above.


MFEI Advisory Board

This network of distinguished and leading thinkers are farmers, ranchers, specialists in farm to school, food processing, planning, food & nutrition, storytelling, food system coordination, grant writing, and researchers are here to mentor communities like yours to build more resilient Montana food systems.



Our Funders

What is a Values-based Community Food System?

While there are a number of academic and layman models outlining components of a food system, the figure on the right captures the way AERO summarizes the complex elements of a community food system. Inherently values-based, community food systems are defined contextually by the communities we work with, to determine the appropriate scales for their projects. However, regardless of differences, communities are participating in a collaborative network that integrates sustainable food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and recovery (waste management) in order to enhance the environmental, economic, and social health of a community. This emphasis on environmental, economic, and social health runs counter to the dominant model of industrial food production and seeks to mitigate negative impacts inherent to that model.

Alternative Energy Resources Organization

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

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