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.
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 geographically diverse Montana communities. MFEI drives food network planning, including strategies to increase local markets and increase access to good food for all Montanans.
In 2016–2019, AERO’s role in producer-led and community-driven MFEI was to assist four regions in establishing group identities, expand the circle of participants in each group, and facilitate multiple regional discussions that resulted in the identifying specific needs that the groups could target with strategic plans for improving their regional food systems. Check out success stories from each region in our success stories blog.
Building on the data gathered in its regional food system development work to date, AERO proposes a two-prong approach to community food system development that is best suited to accommodate the range of capacity in Montana’s rural, often isolated, communities. MFEI accomplishes its goal by training producers and ag professionals in collaborative leadership to strengthen cross-sector relationships.
The two prongs are:
(1) an “intensive coaching” program designed for regions still coalescing as a cohesive food system; set up to engage community stakeholders to self-identify and support change makers in building a community’s capacity to focus on food system development and cross-sector engagement, and
(2) a “grassroots to systems” (G2S) “pick list” of discrete, short-term projects for producers in more established food system communities to lead and which enhance on-farm resilience and cross-sector engagement. The project list will be developed in collaboration with a producer-led “Advisory Board” made up of AERO farmers, ranchers and partner organizations. In our view, the G2S “pick list” program is a modern-day take on the “Farm Improvement Clubs” AERO spearheaded so successfully in Montana almost 40 years ago.
These two strategies build producers’ collaborative leadership capacity to implement projects at the community level because producers allied with a cross-sector collaboration make sustainable agriculture in Montana more profitable, resilient, and adapted to climate change.
With support from the advisory board, producers lead development of a cross-sector team, community assessment, project implementation and evaluation, and report at semi-annual MFEI meetings.
Our timeline for the project is being adjusted. This year, we expect to begin the coaching model and start developing Grassroots to Systems (G2S) projects together with our MFEI Advisory Board. Look for program updates in future AERO E-News and Announcements.
Currently, AERO has partnered with the Blackfeet Agricultural Resource Management Program to fund 10 hours/week coaching time, to implement the Amskapi Piikani Food Sovereignty Plan as part of the “intensive coaching” program.
We’d originally planned to offer a pilot “pick list” group of projects to the community this summer through the G2S program so participants could carry out the projects and share their findings at the first MFEI “reporting” gathering at Expo this fall. We are still evaluating what’s realistic given everyone’s current circumstances as we are sure you can appreciate. Stay tuned!
We’re honored that WSARE chose to support our continuing work on building community food system sustainability and are delighted to offer this programming to our members and supporters in Montana.