How Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center (MMFEC) and Western Montana Growers’ Cooperative Work Together to Provide Local Food Throughout the Year
As the new year gets underway, Montana schools and hospitals involved in Farm to Cafeteria are utilizing frozen and long-storage vegetables from the 2012 harvest to continue serving local foods during the cold winter months. For many institutions, providing year-round local food is possible thanks to the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center (MMFEC), a food processing and business development facility in Ronan. Developed by the Lake County Community Development Corporation and opened in 2000, MMFEC helps entrepreneurs with specialty food product development, packaging, and marketing. It also assists Farm to Cafeteria programs by processing local food products that institutions don’t have the capacity to process themselves, including freezing.
Over the past decade, MMFEC’s partnership with the Western Montana Growers’ Cooperative has been crucial in meeting the needs of institutional food buyers. The cooperative, founded in 2003, provides wholesale marketing and product distribution for its thirty-eight grower members. By aggregating members’ products at a central warehouse and acting as the point person for sales transactions, the Co-op alleviates the need for institutional buyers to work with multiple growers, a process that can be time- consuming. If the buyer is interested in a local product but needs it processed— such as coined carrots, shredded cabbage, or pre-cooked taco beef crumbles— the Co-op arranges for MMFEC to get it done.
In addition to providing processed fresh products, MMFEC also prepares frozen items like cherries, pureed squash, and their signature lentil patty, made with all Montana ingredients. Though stored at MMFEC, the Co-op is responsible for the sale of these products. Other products available year-round through the Co-op include dairy and meat products and dry goods such as barley and lentils.
The partnership between MMFEC and the Western Montana Growers’ Cooperative has helped Farm to Cafeteria programs in Montana grow by leaps and bounds. Schools in Kalispell, Polson, Ronan, St. Ignatius, and Missoula regularly utilize their products, along with other institutions like the University of Montana and St. Pat’s Hospital. Weekly processing orders grew to 1,000 lbs in 2012, and sometimes twice that. This year, the Co-op and MMFEC are exploring ways to increase supply to meet rising demands.