Hello! My name is Olivia Weins, a dietetics intern working through Montana State University, to learn about nutrition and community health. Throughout this supervised practice, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to work with many people in lots of different settings, including clinical, foodservice, and community environments. Some of my favorite rotations have been working with local non-profits, like NCAT and Gallatin Valley Farm to School. Learning more about our food systems and being able to connect it with our local communities has been a very empowering experience. 

I was fortunate to be one of the Montana Dietetic Internship Program’s two interns given the opportunity to work with NCAT and the Farm to Cafeteria Program for a two week rotation. NCAT is committed to increasing access to healthy food, providing technical assistance in partnership with the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition (CFAC) to farmers markets interested in or participating in SNAP and Montana’s incentive match program – Double SNAP Dollars (DSD). In addition, NCAT has served as a key coordinator for the Montana Harvest of the Month Program (HOM) since its inception in 2015.  Throughout my two weeks, I worked on various projects that further demonstrated the significance of connecting local producers to institutions including school cafeterias, hospitals, and food banks. I visited the Helena Food Share, who provides emergency food for 1,500 families each month and serves nearly 1,100 elementary school students every week with the Kid Packs program. We got to chat local food, community gardens, HOM, and even got to attend a meeting with the Montana Partnership to End Childhood Hunger to chat about HOM’s role in Helena’s wider, community-led initiative to improve the health of Helena’s children. Helena Food Share is prime example of this. Through their cooking demonstrations, recipes handouts, and nutrition education, they’ve already greatly influenced community members on how to prepare healthy meals while supporting local farmers. Educating the community on local, seasonal foods, creates and builds a community that fosters healthy behaviors.

A big question you might have is, why would a dietitian need to be involved with local producers and food systems? Well, the answer is quite simple. In order to build healthier communities, we need to focus on where our food comes from. Montana is a rural and agricultural state, yet 30 of Montana’s 56 counties are deemed “food deserts,” with limited access to healthy fruits and vegetables. Thirty-six percent of state residents reported in 2017 that they eat less than one serving of fruit per day, and 15% eat less than one serving of vegetables  (Centers for Disease Control). Often dietitians are associated with being primarily in clinical environments, however, there is a great need for more dietitians to be involved in farm-to-institution settings. Dietitians have a strong educational background in both food procurement and clinical practice, and in turn can act as huge educators and advocates for programs that connect local farms with institutions. Programs like HOM are fundamental in educating the public (especially the kiddos!) in eating local, healthy foods. Creating a foundation for eating local foods not only promotes health for the individual, but for the community as a whole. 

Though NCAT has many areas of focus, working with Kei Matsunami, Montana Local Foods Specialist, has emphasized the importance and tremendous impact that NCAT has on our food system. Her efforts in providing resources to help local producers create partnerships with institutions is just one slice of the pie in creating and fostering healthy communities.