The farm-to-fork food movement is a healthy, feel-good initiative growing in leaps and bounds around the country, with consumers everywhere clamoring for fresh, nutritious food that is produced locally. And Montana is eager to jump on the local food bandwagon.
However, Montana’s geography creates challenging distribution costs for farmers and producers around the state, making it much harder for residents to buy and enjoy locally grown foodstuffs.
“Because of the overall size of Montana, and the fact that population centers are spread out over two- to three-hour spans of driving, distribution in our state can be extremely challenging,” says Dave Prather of the Western Montana Growers Cooperative.
Thankfully, many organizations and companies are working together to overcome this problem.
Prather explains that when moving goods from one town to another, businesses have to ensure shipped products create enough revenue to cover the delivery cost. Businesses also calculate the extra time and cost it takes to make multiple deliveries throughout an area. As a result, individual producers often find it’s not cost effective to enter into a new market in Montana.
“On the consumer end, the greatest effect of this problem is found in rural areas, especially those areas of the state that aren’t along major travel corridors – in other words, a large portion of the state,” Prather says.
According to the National Center for Appropriate Technology and the Foundation for Healthy Montanans, only 46 percent of counties in the state have access to nutritious and affordable food, as compared to 87 percent of counties across the nation. An estimated 54,000 Montanans live in food deserts, where residents must travel more than 10 miles to the nearest grocery store.
This wasn’t always the case. In 1950, 70 percent of the food consumed by Montana’s residents was grown in the state.
Luckily, many passionate organizations are working to help Montana strengthen its food systems, including Western Montana Growers Cooperative (WMGC), which began in 2003 with seven farmers.
“WMGC has worked to solve these problems by essentially becoming a distributor for small producers where one did not previously exist,” Prather says. “In Western Montana – essentially up and down the Highway 93 corridor – we have been able to aggregate products from our member farms, which then allows us the economy of scale needed to operate a small fleet of delivery vehicles to serve both our customers and producers. Further off the Highway 93 corridor, we’ve partnered with many other distributors over the years in order to reach customers that were outside of our economical delivery range.”
Partnership is what helps make all of this possible. WMGC has fostered relationships with Summit Distribution in Bozeman and Charlie’s Produce in Spokane, which allows the organization to offer at least twice-a-week deliveries to most major towns in Montana.
“Because of our unique challenges here, it really does force us to work together and forge partnerships in order to make the process work,” Prather says.
Over the years, WMGC has grown and flourished. During the co-op’s first summer of operations, the business reported about $10,000 in gross sales. The co-op now has roughly 40 members and works with about 55 total producers. It has experienced an average growth rate of 30 percent since about 2010.
“We’ve come a long way over the last decade, but there is still much work to be done,” Prather says.
The University of Montana (UM) dining program also has been a positive force for change. Mark LoParco, Director of UM Dining, says the university faces many of the same challenges that consumers do.
“UM Dining and many consumers face the same question: where do we get local foods? UM Dining is lucky, because we are able to purchase from Western Montana Growers Cooperative. With the co-op, more food from farmers makes it to shelves for stores and kitchens of local restaurants,” LoParco says.
“The biggest challenge UM Dining has faced trying to source local foods is pricing,” he says. “We try to work with local farmers to understand that we must purchase at wholesale pricing and not retail. The co-op helps greatly with this.”
In the fiscal year 2015, UM Dining purchased $1.2 million, or approximately 31.4 percent of its food budget, from local farmers, ranchers and businesses. Over the years, the university has worked to implement changes that help the state’s residents and businesses. For instance, UM Dining launched the UM Farm to College Program in 2003 – the first of its kind in Montana.
Today, local products, from apples to zucchini, are used year round in every UM Dining-managed food venue on campus, LoParco says.
In 2013, UM President Royce Engstrom, Associated Students of the University of Montana President Asa Holman and LoParco signed a commitment requiring 20 percent of UM’s food purchases to be local, community- based, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources by 2020.
“One year later, UM Dining has surpassed that goal,” LoParco says.