Garden City Harvest celebrates farmstead, looks to future of food

Jean Zosel, executive director of Garden City Harvest, highlights the organization’s plans to occupy its new farmstead off River Road, where year-round efforts will take place to grow the program’s mission to curb food insecurity in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

A handful of dignitaries gathered amid freshly tilled soil and the emergence of spring vegetables on Tuesday to celebrate Garden City Harvest’s foray into the future, one that will enable the organization to consolidate its services and offer its programming throughout the year.

Now deep into a $2.8 million fundraising campaign, the organization that traces its roots back to humble beginnings is gearing up to occupy its new office space on River Road, and launch year-round classes in a barn-sized learning center.

Both efforts mark a milestone in the program’s history.

“Twenty-one years ago, Garden City Harvest was born from very humble beginnings as a small farming and gardening nonprofit,” said Jean Zosel, the program’s executive director. “We had two sites, and here we are today with 20 sites on 20 acres throughout Missoula.”

Before Tuesday’s ceremony, Zosel stepped into the unfinished barn and imagined the future. Here within the open room, Garden City Harvest will teach those who grow their own food how to can, freeze and preserve their bounty for the winter months.

The lofty barn also includes a commercial kitchen, and it will enable the organization to offer its youth development programs year round.

“For us to have heated, indoor space is a huge game changer,” Zosel said. “Right now, our work is centered so much around the growing seasons. This gives us the chance to expand the work we do with teenagers, giving them the tools they need to become more viable community members.”

The property, located off River Road and Russell Street, is more rural than urban. Chickens cluck from a nearby coop while 55 community garden plots absorb the spring-day sun. An adjoining neighborhood farm produces up to 6,000 pounds of fresh produce each year for the Poverello Center.

The neighborhood farm off River Road is one of four operated by Garden City Harvest across the city, each producing several tons of food for local organizations, including Missoula Youth Homes and the Missoula Food Bank.

And while all food donations are welcome at the Food Bank, executive director Aaron Brock said the farm’s fresh produce stands above the rest.

“So much of the food we have on our shelves at the Missoula Food Bank is leftover – it’s stuff that didn’t sell at the grocery stores,” said Brock. “We can find happy homes for all of it. But the 20,000 pounds of food we get each year from Garden City Harvest is different. There’s an intentionality to it that’s meaningful.”

Like many nonprofits, the organization’s reach is limited by what it can generate in grants and donations, though it has established a stronghold since it spun away from the Missoula Food Bank 21 years ago.

Back then, few recognized the organization’s name, nor could they identify its mission. Gardening plots established by the program sat empty, and those that were used accommodated dahlias over food.

But that has changed, and the interest in locally grown and sourced food has swelled beyond the organization’s ability to meet the needs. While Garden City Harvest rents nearly 400 community garden plots each year, 115 people are still on the waiting list.

It’s those people the organization hopes to reach.

“For them, gardening brings hope and self sufficiency,” said Zosel. “We offer many solutions to food insecurity issues. We also offer programs that address hunger, isolation, obesity and more.”

The organization launched its $2.8 million capital campaign last summer to generate the funding needed to open the farmstead on River Road. Those close to the program have been pleased with the progress, though the organization remains $500,000 shy of its goal.

That has prompted program supporters and community leaders to advocate on the program’s behalf, including Scott Burke, president and CEO of First Security Bank, and Missoula Mayor John Engen.

Programs like Garden City Harvest, Engen said, make Missoula a better place.

“We sometimes forget that anyone in our community who is suffering leads to our suffering,” Engen said. “Sometimes we don’t draw that direct line, but the fact of the matter is that it exists. When a kid goes hungry in our community, his or her life is changed forever.

“Garden City Harvest is one of our community builders, and our investment in its work today will pay dividends for countless generations to come,” he added.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com