List of ingredients: 26 high school students; 8 teachers, 2 parents, 1 Master Gardener; 1 social worker; 7 FoodCorps members; 6 leadership trainers; and a handful of amazing guests. Mix ingredients thoroughly for one weekend, making sure to evenly disperse ideas and experiences. Add a dash of inspiration and let simmer until thoroughly motivated. Servings: enough for multiple communities.

This, in a nutshell, was the recipe for the first Youth Leadership Retreat. Held April 27-28 at Camp Mak-A-Dream, the event was chock-full of ideas for ways young people can—and are—catalyzing change related to sustainable food and agriculture in their communities.

Click on the photos
to enlarge them.


The weekend opened with a presentation delivered by food activist Crissie McMullan about the power of persistence. Crissie, who helped begin UM’s Farm to College program in 2003 and founded Montana FoodCorps in 2006, spoke of the uphill battles she has fought to increase local foods in institutions. Most efforts were unsuccessful the first time around, she said, yet perseverance paid off. Crissie continues to work with programs that are making a big difference in Montana’s local food systems, including our very own Farm to Cafeteria Network.

The National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI) in Missoula worked with the retreat’s participants to build cohesiveness and acceptance among the group. Led by five NCBI youth trainers, the interactive session gave participants ideas for ways to shift the attitudes of others who may be resistant to change, making it easier to generate partners and allies for school food projects.
UM professor Josh Slotnick gave a rousing speech Saturday evening about the need to break away from the centralized food system and embrace local food. “If you reconnect with where your food comes from—if you start growing food and cooking, really cooking, with a cutting board and knife—your life will get better. I promise,” Josh said. He compared the current food system to a giant cruise liner sailing in the ocean and encouraged everyone to jump overboard. “But first, build yourself a raft, a beautiful raft that others will want to get on, too.” Many referred to Josh’s talk as one of the weekend’s highlights.

“I connected with many students and adults who can help me make changes in my school.”
—student participant

On Sunday, a panel representing several organizations spoke about “Successful Models of Change” for food systems. Panelist Lindsay Howard of Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center explained the vital role of processing in local food systems. Kimbra Buerschaper, an AmeriCorps VISTA member in Kalispell, introduced participants to the national program, Real Food Challenge, a student-driven campaign that works with university administration to increase healthy, unprocessed, local foods on college campuses. Another panelist, Mary Stein, the Associate Director of the National Farm to School Network, explained the organization’s role in uniting nationwide efforts in Farm to School. Mary shared the inspiring story of the Rethinkers, a group of New Orleans middle school students who started a school food revolution by declaring, “We deserve better than plastic sporks!” Since then, the Rethinkers have completely rethought and reshaped their schools’ food and garden programs and have been strong agents of change in their school communities.

Despite these great speakers, the highlight of the retreat was, without a doubt, the student presentations. Young people from nine different schools and organizations across Montana led fifteen-minute presentations with titles like, “Garden of Awesome,” “Forty Frost-free Days,” and “Farmer in the Classroom.”

“Sometimes I get frustrated with the politics and process so this was very rejuvenating and inspiring!”
—adult participant

One such presentation was led by three cadets from Montana Youth Challenge Academy in Dillon who work with UM Western’s campus garden. “We really come together out there and it’s like, you know, we’re a family,” one of them said during their presentation about working in the garden with fellow platoon members. In another presentation, three teen employees of Garden City Harvest’s program, Youth Harvest, told of their Mobile Market in Missoula that delivers fresh produce to low-income populations while also helping young employees stay on a positive path. Students from Hellgate High School showed a creative video presentation about steps their school is taking to be sustainable, including a rooftop garden and recycling program. Members of Community Cooking Connections, an afterschool program in the Bitterroot Valley, told about their teen cooking program that provides free community meals on Friday nights. These presentations and others provided information and inspiration for the retreat’s participants.

Farm to Cafeteria Network is already looking forward to its next youth leadership event, a Youth Summit to be held in mid-September 2013.
We’d like to give special thanks to the following organizations and businesses who contributed to the Youth Leadership Retreat: Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation for Healthy Montanans, Hennessy Market in Butte, Bozeman Community Food Co-op, Good Food Store in Missoula, Wheat Montana, Great Harvest Bread Co., and Real Food Store and Deli in Helena.