March 2013
By Nancy Moore

Nancy at Work

I’ve been working with Farm to Cafeteria Network for five months now, aiming to develop and share resources that increase institutions’ purchases of local food. It seems like as good a time as any to reflect on the state of cafeterias across Montana based on my initial experience.

First, a caveat: Montana is large. It contains many cafeterias. I can not claim to know the ins and outs of every single one of these cafeterias. What you are about to read is based only on my personal experience.

That said, I’ve met a multitude of cafeteria stakeholders during the past five months. I’ve visited with people who prepare and cook cafeteria food; those who grow, process, and transport food to cafeterias; children and adults who sit before trays and, forkful by forkful, put cafeteria meals into their bodies. I’ve also spoken with community members, government officials, teachers, business owners, non-profit entities, and more—all about cafeteria food, nutrition, and local food systems.

From these interactions one thing has become very clear: Montanans are becoming more educated, and consequently more concerned, about where their food comes from.

The local food movement is growing nationwide and Montana is playing a significant role in that movement. Several innovative programs and organizations have started in our state and paved the way for local food procurement and nutrition education across the country. These pioneering groups (FoodCorps, University of Montana Dining Services, Western Montana Growers’ Cooperative, and several others) deserve special recognition, but I must say it hasn’t been these shining star programs that have impressed me most in my work thus far. Instead I’ve been surprised and impressed by the quantity of smaller, lesser-known Farm to Cafeteria programs that dot our rural landscapes. They’re out there, and they’re increasing.

MSP Cooking Green Beans

Most of these programs were brought to my attention via the Farm to Cafeteria survey we conducted in December and January. Farm to School was the largest group to respond, with eighteen different schools reporting efforts to include local foods in lunches and as part of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP). Montana’s ten FoodCorps members have built relationships around local food in several of these programs, many of them rural, and helped lay the groundwork for several Farm to School programs in our state.

With encouragement from the Association of Montana Healthcare Providers (MHA), nine healthcare facilities shared news of their Farm to Hospital efforts. Many of these are small facilities just getting started with local food, yet they have shown a strong interest in promoting their institution’s emphasis on health by serving more nutritious, local food in their cafeterias and in room service.

Community involvement in Farm to Cafeteria programs has also caught my attention. In just the past few weeks, several community members from as many different towns contacted me to inquire: how can I help get local, healthy food in my child’s school? Demand for such quality food in institutions appears to be growing in Montana, a vital first step in reshaping our food systems. Consumer demand, after all, spurs market response.

In order for markets and institutions to respond to this demand, change also needs to come at a policy level, which is why Grow Montana is currently leading the charge on two bills this legislative session that would help Farm to Cafeteria programs. House Bill 420 secures funding for the state’s four Food and Agriculture Development Centers, facilities that can assist producers and processors in reaching institutional markets. House Bill 471 would provide competitive grant funding for Farm to School Programs that would help schools purchase more food produced in Montana. Both of these bills, like Farm to Cafeteria in general, have the potential to improve diets, strengthen communities, and build a stronger economy.

The state of cafeterias in Montana is far from ideal, but it’s also far from dismal. Our cafeterias are headed in the right direction, though such changes require time, patience, and persistence. With spring just around the corner and new beginnings in sight, perhaps we should all consider the change we’d like to see in our local cafeterias and how we can help make that change a reality. Plant the idea now, and tend to it in the warming months to come.

View previous Homegrown Profiles here.