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Sustainable Missoula: Agriculture can bring our food stories to the table, and Congress

Beginning farmers learn about high tunnel design and construction at a recent Farmer Field Day at SweetRoot Farm in Hamilton, MT. Field Days area series of production-focused, on-farm workshops to help beginning farmers and ranchers get practical information they can use to plan or enhance their own operations.

In her book “Braiding Sweetgrass,” Robin Wall Kimmerer describes how in her native Potawatomi language “things” are known by their very name as actively “being“ – a verb.

A bay, she writes, is alive; in Potawatomi, it is called “to be a bay.”

This way of understanding the world obligates us to consider that “to be a radish” is also to have a story. Because it is alive, it has moved through the world, and has experiences to tell about.

When food is grown locally and sustainably, I am more likely to ask: Who has prepared and tended to the land? What other living beings have the radishes shared their fields with? Has the field been well cared for? Sustainable farming compels me to consider the answers to these questions by the intimacy with which my food is grown, harvested, transported, and sold to me.

Growing up, my mom told me stories of working her way through college with three children, one full-time job, and one part-time waitressing job. It took her ten years, perseverance, luck, and a good helping of food insecurity to get there.

By the time I could cook for myself, we were a Midwestern family living a comfortable lower-middle class life. We ate meals of meat and potatoes and pasta. Vegetables were rare but available.

Then when I was 15, my dad lost his job. When I was 16, my brother moved home after being diagnosed with a long-term illness. At 18, my mom started fighting cancer, and at 19 my parents divorced. We were no longer a comfortable lower-middle class family; we were struggling to make ends meet.

In college, I shopped at Walmart and fed myself with the part-time job I had working at the dorm cafeteria. I made thousands of grilled cheese sandwiches for $7 an hour.

Later, I served in the Peace Corps and I witnessed malnourishment on a crippling scale.

I returned to Missoula from my Peace Corps service and used SNAP (formerly food stamps) as I interviewed for jobs. Luckily, I got a job at Missoula Food Bank, where I helped provide emergency food assistance to hundreds of Missoulians each week. Later, in another transition, I leaned on the food bank myself.

Now, I work at the Farmers’ Market every Saturday. I can somewhat successfully cook myself meals with healthy, local ingredients, and I even have my own little garden plot.

My food story, like the food stories of many others, is varied and complex. I am grateful for all the experiences I’ve had, but I’m especially grateful for all I’ve learned about food thanks in large part to this unique place I call home and the Montanans who are committed to taking care of one another as well as the Earth.

My food story brought me to Community Food and Agriculture Coalition (CFAC). At CFAC, we acknowledge and honor the different food stories out there. We’re working to increase the production and consumption of sustainably-grown, local food because we believe that local food has a story that shapes individuals, families, and entire communities. And, we believe that a sustainable food system where local food is abundant and resources are stewarded is the only way to ensure that everybody has nourishing food—not just today, not just this month, not just this year—but long into the future.

Last summer’s wildfires, spring flooding, and loss of farmland to development are glaring indications that our future food security is at risk. It is up to us to take steps that enhance our ability to produce healthy food through the storms ahead.

These are all complex issues with complex solutions. But a simple way to support a sustainable food system is to support local farmers by purchasing their foods and products whenever possible. When we support niche farmers, we all benefit; local dollars stay local, food is more accessible, and the resources we all rely on for food production — soil, water, forests, and entire ecosystems — are sustained.

Another way to ensure a food-secure future is to remain abreast of local food issues and advocate for policies—from local to federal — that reflect our values. This includes the 2018 federal Farm Bill.

CFAC has administered $1.3 million of federal dollars from Farm Bill programs and invested those dollars into our local food and farming system. As a result, nearly 1,000 beginning farmers received farm business training, 52 new farms were started, 28 farmers received $146,000 to purchase infrastructure improvements to enhance their operations, 2,500 SNAP customers received matching funds at local food retailers to buy more fruits and veggies, and more than $274,000 was spent on local foods.

$1.3 million of federal dollars from Farm Bill programs have been invested into our local food and farming system since 2014. These programs have real impacts on communities across Montana. Our blog has more. CFAC stands with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)’s agenda for the 2018 Farm Bill. Learn more about NSAC’s Farm Bill Agendaat their website.

This coming week, the U.S. House will vote on a proposed Farm Bill that will dictate the next five years of agricultural and nutrition priorities. It includes harmful cuts to conservation and nutrition programs, and puts local food economies at risk.

Call Rep. Greg Gianforte at (202) 225-3211 and tell him your food story. Ask him to reject the proposed Farm Bill, and instead support Farm Bill programs that provide resources to niche beginning farmers, help farmers steward the land that sustains us, and make local food accessible to all.

There are many more food stories yet to be told by future generations. What will they tell about? I hope they tell stories of resilience, perseverance, and an enduring hope for a better future; of a Missoula that decides what kind of future it wants and wholeheartedly pursues it — just like my mother’s story.

Krystin Gehrich is the Development & Communications Coordinator at Community Food & Agriculture Coalition.

Upcoming Sustainability Events:

May 18. Endangered Species Day Film Festival hosted by Endangered Species Coalition & International Wildlife Film Festival. 6-9pm at Roxy Theater, 718 S. Higgins. $5. List of films here.

May 19-20. Tree planting. Help Lolo Watershed Group plant trees to protect burned land. Bring sturdy shoes, water, & work gloves. Lunch provided. For info, email: Abby@lolowatershed.org  & sign up at www.Lolowatershed.org/volunteer.

May 26-27. Land restoration. Help your neighbors. The Purcell Ranch was burned in the Lolo Peak fire. The ranch received the 2017 Montana Neighbor Award for its good stewardship and allowing public access and now they need help piling the burned trees. To help, contact Alec Underwood 406-303-0494, alec@mtwf.org.

May 29. Using local ecotypes in ecological restoration. Free talk hosted by Society for Ecological Restoration. Socializing & networking encouraged. 6-8pm at Imagine Nation Brewing. 1151 W Broadway.

June 7. Climate Smart Missoula’s Monthly Meetup: Health and Climate. Join the conversation. 5-7pm at Imagine Nation Brewing Company’s Community Room. More here.