No one’s eager to say it, but Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s appearance isn’t what brought most people out for a midday press conference May 18 at the University of Montana’s cafeteria. Rather, it’s executive chef Tom Siegel. More to the point, it’s his food. Specifically, it’s the sorbet made with Dixon melons, and the huckleberry milkshake that comes courtesy of Montana cows and mountain bushes. It’s also the hamburger from Forsyth that’s got a thick, melted slice of local cheese, a fresh Montana-grown bun and a dollop of barbecue sauce enriched with Flathead cherries.
“There’s really not much in it that didn’t come from Montana—only the salt,” says Siegel.
A steady stream of hungry locals lined up to sample Siegel’s cuisine after waiting patiently through comments by Schweitzer and other local officials. And with any luck, there will be plenty more local fare at institutions throughout Montana in coming years.
Schweitzer was on hand to sign SB 328, the “Montana Food to Institutions” bill that won near-unanimous support from legislators. Until now, state law has required public institutions like schools and prisons to select contracts that offer the cheapest food available. The new law creates more flexibility for public institutions to purchase Montana-grown or -processed food, which can’t always beat out national and multinational food companies.
With its Farm to College program, UM has already pioneered state efforts to promote local food, says Dining Services Director Mark LoParco, by working with 40 local vendors to purchase 15 percent of UM’s food. Next year’s goal is 20 percent, and other academic institutions appear interested in following UM’s lead, a move encouraged by the new law.
But in the bigger picture, these developments are anything but new. In the 1940s, Grow Montana’s Nancy Matheson says almost 70 percent of Montana’s food was grown in state, a figure that’s dropped to 10 percent today. That evolution may disappoint many, but Pam Clevenger, who owns Stevensville’s Home Acres Orchard and sells apples to UM students, looks on the bright side: “The exciting part is this is just the beginning and there’s still a lot of room to grow.”