Montana is fortunate to be a state with farmers, ranchers, and organizations dedicated to making quality food available to our communities. Unfortunately for many, local fresh food remains out of reach because of their income level.

The Montana Farm to Food Bank program (House Bill 276, sponsored by Representative Marty Malone, R - HD 59) aims to change that. Right now, state lawmakers have an opportunity to nourish families, boost rural economies, and strengthen local food systems by supporting HB 276. Montana Farm to Food Bank will ensure that more of the wonderful food grown right here in Montana ends up on more Montana dinner tables.

Farm to Food Bank programs operate in a growing number of states with strong agriculture economies with tremendous success. The Montana program would bring together the Montana Department of Agriculture, small farmers and ranchers, local food pantries, and other nonprofit organizations to create new markets for local producers and connect more community members to Montana-grown foods, implementing lasting change that moves the ball forward to end hunger in Montana.

The Farm to Food Bank program would leverage the knowledge, experience, and resources of public, private, and nonprofit groups to cultivate lasting partnerships and build the necessary infrastructure for a sustained connection between local foods and Montana’s network of food pantries.

It is no secret that Montana families, food banks, and small farmers and ranchers face ongoing challenges of inflation, labor, and supply chain disruptions. In recent months, Montana food pantries have served record numbers of households, including many working families who have never needed food assistance before. Recent data show that approximately one out of every seven children in our state – more than 31,000 Montana kids – live in food-insecure homes.

Quality food is foundational to health, and food insecurity can have long-term effects on both physical and mental health. Fresh, nutritious food is often the first thing to go when budgets are tight and families face the impossible choice between food and other necessities like housing, heat, and medication.

When Montanans face difficult times, they can turn to food banks, food pantries, and other local organizations. Collectively, local food pantries and partners of the Montana Food Bank Network provide food assistance to an average of 38,000 Montana households every month, distributing tens of millions of pounds of food each year.

Food pantries want to provide more local foods to their communities, keeping more money in the local economy while offering fresh, high-quality foods to their customers. A growing number of food pantries are building relationships with local producers.

Yet, most do not have the budget to purchase food directly from growers and ranchers or the room to store it. The Montana Farm to Food Bank program proposed in HB 276 establishes the resources, partnerships, and structures needed to reliably bring Montana-grown food to more Montana food pantries and the households they serve.

The proposed Montana Farm to Food Bank program also directly supports Montana’s farmers and ranchers by creating a new market for producers within their local communities. By providing the resources for pantries to purchase more local food at fair market value, Montana Farm to Food Bank will contribute to thriving local food systems, support rural economies, and help to build a more food-secure Montana.

Food banks, farmers, members of the healthcare community, and others are urging the Legislature to support Montana Farm to Food Bank. We hope our state legislators recognize the importance of building healthy, resilient, and economically viable Montana communities. We urge state legislators to support local producers and keep more of Montana’s incredible agricultural bounty in our communities by passing House Bill 276.

Gayle Carlson, Montana Food Bank Network; Walter Schweitzer, Montana Farmers Union; Maura Henn, Grow Montana Food Policy Coalition; Dr. Lauren Wilson, Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics