One of the goals of NCAT’s Farm to Cafeteria Network is to highlight innovative strategies and exciting developments in institutions around the state that are seeking to provide fresh, healthy, and local food to the people they serve and support the local farmers in their area. This month, we took some time to visit with Jill Holder at the Gallatin Valley Food Bank and Deb Davidson from the Bozeman Community Food Co-op about their Farm to Food Bank program, which is accomplishing that very goal. Read on to learn about how this innovative program is bringing the highest-quality food to people in need in Park and Gallatin Counties.

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Taking Root

The Farm to Food Bank program’s mission is to reduce hunger by providing fresh, local, and high-quality produce to Southwest Montana food bank clients, while supporting and investing in the local food economy. The Farm to Food Bank project started in 2006 with the sole purpose of purchasing goods from local farmers to be distributed through the Food Bank. The Deli Food Purchaser at the Bozeman Community Food Co-op at the time was instrumental in helping the effort get started, as was assistance from a grant that was funded by Alternative Energy Resource Organization (AERO). Since then, the Bozeman Community Food Co-op has always supported Farm to Food Bank efforts by gathering customer donations at the check stands and matching all customer donations with a cash donation. The Co-op is also working to diversify funding sources and has recently received grants from the First Security Bank Foundation and Bozeman Area Community Foundation to grow the program. While the Co-op also donates leftover food to the Food Bank and some farmers bring in items they don’t sell, the Farm to Food Bank program specifically works to purchase the best of the best in local produce, thereby supporting local farmers in addition to serving the freshest food to clients. The Food Banks are given a monthly cash allocation to spend on local produce, working through either Market Day Foods or Root Cellar Foods for their ordering. Holder says that credit for both the creation and continued success of this program goes to the Community Co-op. The program has grown steadily over the years and now includes both the Gallatin Valley Food Bank and the Livingston Food Pantry.

A Unique Approach

The Farm to Food Bank project is unique in that the goal is not just to get food to people in need, but to prioritize access to fresh and healthy food and support local farmers.

“Basically, when I go to purchase for our Food Bank, I am looking for the highest quality for the least amount of money,” Holder explains. “The Farm to Food Bank model helps spur the economy by supporting local farmers. So if local produce and local economy is important to you, it makes sense. Typically, our clients don’t get the best of the best. You could argue that nutritionally you are getting the highest quality of food to people who need it the most. It is very unique.”

Carrots by the Pound

Holder says that people definitely notice the difference when produce supplied by local producers is on the shelf.

“When our shelves have fresh produce, there is a feeling of well-being to see bright orange carrots this time of year. We can easily go through 300 pounds of carrots per week,” she says.

Last summer, the Food Bank hosted an intern who would highlight the fresh vegetables by offering samples and recipes featuring a fresh fruit or vegetable that was not as popular as other selections. For example, the intern prepared a salad with finely chopped veggies mixed with a grain. One shopper had said that she didn’t like the featured vegetable, but she changed her mind after seeing and tasting the sample, saying, “This is great. I never would have tried it otherwise.”

Sometimes people find some of the fresh products intimidating, and others may not have the space or required equipment to cook. For them, carrots are a perfect choice, while beets might pose a challenge. Holder is working to label what is local because that helps people make the connection: if it can be grown locally, they could grow it themselves. The Food Bank also has a garden to show that it is possible to grow one’s own food, and they give out seeds and starts in the springtime. Last year, the Food Bank garden supplied 1,300 pounds of produce such as carrots, onions, and spinach.

Supporting Farm to Food Bank

If you are looking to replicate the Farm to Food Bank efforts in your community, Holder suggests finding people who are passionate about nutritious food and pairing them with the people who are growing that food. “If you put passionate people together who see the value in nutrition, a lot of things can happen,” she says.

Holder says there are a variety of ways for community members to support their Food Bank, whether through a financial donation or growing a row in their gardens specifically for the Food Bank. One of her goals for the Farm to Food Bank program moving forward is to do more preservation through blanching and freezing, as there is so much product coming in during the summer months.

“During summer months, we pull canned veggies off the shelf and only offer fresh produce,” she says. “This saves around 3,000 to 3,600 cans of vegetables. Put a 50 cent value on that and it adds up fast. Plus, you are giving people good food that does not increase blood pressure.”

Holder says that between local gardeners, what the Food Bank garden grows, and Farm to Food Bank purchases, they can bring in produce that looks better than any grocery store. And thanks to the support of the community, the farmers who grow such beautiful produce are supported in their good work as well.

Co op carrot smallThe Farm to Food Bank program has the potential to grow and bring more fresh produce to the Gallatin and Park County food banks. Please check out the following links for more information and ways to get involved.

Click here for more general information about the Gallatin Valley Food Bank or here to learn about similar efforts at the Livingston Food Resource Center.