Soup to nuts 

Erika Fredrickson set out to test Missoula’s burgeoning local food network. What she found might turn even you into a locavore.

Once upon a time, we grew food here. In the early 1900s, Missoula earned the name “Garden City” because of its bountiful irrigation and farms. In 1950, 70 percent of the food consumed by Montanans was grown in-state, according to a study by Grow Montana, and up until about 1940 food processing was the state’s number one employer. The Wal-Mart Super Center on N. Reserve Street, for instance, sits on what used to be a large beet field, and a few blocks away was once a sugar beet factory; now it’s a computer software complex.

Those buildings are indicative of a larger shift. More than 90 percent of our food today comes from outside Montana, according to the same Grow Montana study. Cooler climates limit our food choices, certainly, but access to land, economic conditions and cultural norms also affect what and how we eat. More recent obstacles to food procurement, including the rise in fuel prices and housing sprawl, have also made an impact.

A movement within the last decade has brought local food networks back to prominence. It’s been the subject of best-selling books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s DilemmaAnimal, Vegetable, Miracle. Locally, we’ve witnessed an expansion of farmers’ markets in Montana from five in 1990 to more than 30. Every week, food columnist Ari LeVaux touts the local food network in this paper.

But still, Montanans consume 90 percent of their food from outside the state, a number that belies local efforts to reverse the trend. Why? What’s so hard or intimidating or expensive about eating locally? Why hasn’t that number dropped?

In an effort to answer those questions and to explore what, exactly, a willing—and hungry—person can obtain locally, I engaged in a week of eating strictly local. I warn you: I’m a terrible gardener and I’ve never been much of a cook. In other words, I’m no Ari Levaux. But because of that I figure I can offer the perfect newbie perspective on how to approach local food—and not just what you can eat locally, but what issues persist in the localization movement.

Day One: Working for my bacon

Today’s goal: Earn my meals by volunteering at the PEAS Farm.

Lunch: Mixed greens, yellow beans, scrambled eggs and ham at the PEAS Farm. Cost depends on membership at the farm.

Dinner: Roasted chicken with thyme, mashed potatoes with parsley, Lifeline butter and milk, mixed greens salad. Free courtesy of PEAS Farm volunteers. I provide Painted Rocks honey elderberry mead, $10.

When I arrive at the Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society (PEAS) Farm at 8 a.m., Josh Slotnick, the farm’s director, is already delegating responsibilities. The Youth Harvest kids (an at-risk program) are picking beans and lifting boxes of squash and the Environmental Studies students from the University of Montana—they get graduate credit for taking a summer PEAS class—are watering the gardens and collecting basil. I, as the newcomer, have been asked to collect flowers for seasonal bouquets.

PEAS comprises part of a farm education program started by the Garden City Harvest project, which also has several community gardens around town. At the PEAS teaching farm, youth and college students work side-by-side to harvest food for the Missoula Food Bank, The Poverello Center and the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

Community members pay an upfront cost of $400, a share in the farm that helps cover operating costs for the season. In return, the members get a portion of the harvest, sharing in the risk of crop loss as well. Those who can’t afford the price apply for a low-income application or work 10 hours per season in exchange for food at another farm plot, the River Road Grubshed.

Slotnick farms for a living, but he also teaches classes and he demonstrates a profound understanding of the history and politics surrounding local food. To him, the bonding with people and place isn’t just a fluffy cultural side effect for an otherwise straightforward vocation.

“The greatest benefit we get out of this beyond the food and the reduction in fuel costs is culture,” he says. “When we import what we need from far away…we import a national homogenized culture that rides on the backs of national homogenized products. But when we create our own food, we create our own culture. Our places become distinct and people...become attached to their places. And when you’re attached to your place you can care about it. ”

After cutting an array of pincushions, sunflowers and yarrow, carefully bunching them into water buckets, and picking a few yellow beans, I break with the others for a lunch. I can’t eat all of it: The main dish is fry bread with ground beef and cheese—not local. But the mixed greens, the raw, sweet yellow beans and scrambled eggs come straight from this farm, and, best of all, the farmhands offer me chunks of ham from one of the pigs. “This is delicious,” I say, trying not to cram my mouth too enthusiastically. Slotnick says, “It’s tater tots and chocolate milk.”

Ah, no wonder. Apparently the pigs won’t touch carrots anymore now that they get hot lunch leftovers from Rattlesnake School just across the creek from the farm. As long as industrial food waste is around, it makes for good pig food, but it highlights the fact that local food isn’t disconnected from the industrial world. Which is why, Slotnick says, it’s going to take drastic measures to get a localized food system.

“Two things have to happen,” he says. “The old system has to fail and the new system has to be created. I believe the machinery to get those things to occur is already in the works. Four dollar gas, spinach that gives people E. coli, giant recalls of meat—that’s the old system starting to fail. And the new system starting to work [includes] things like the giant rise in the farmers’ market, the success of the Good Food Store, mainstream newspapers having articles about local food. ‘Locavore’ is the word of the year [according to the 2007 New Oxford American Dictionary] and Michael Pollan’s book is a best seller.”

If these two elements of failure and success happen together, we could have real change, he says. “But one half of the prerequisite is the old thing crashing. And I hope it can happen in a gentle way.” Slotnick cautions against the idea that eating local is some kind of extreme lifestyle.

“Fundamentalism in any form is a huge mistake,” he says. “We need to be flexible to the world around us. When people begin to criticize alternatives to the industrial system right away they jump to the extreme to show how ridiculous it is. Absolutely, the extreme is ridiculous but we’re not advocating going there. This is moderate, careful, conservative and thoughtful—it’s not radical. Radical is shipping beef from Argentina. Processing the cow right where it was grown, that’s not very radical.”

Later that night, the PEAS grad students invite me to dinner to share in chicken they had slaughtered the day before. I bring honey elderberry mead from the Painted Rocks Winery up the Bitterroot, and we sit around a small round table full of items from the PEAS Farm. We listen to Johnny Cash on the radio with the windows open and a lightning storm raging outside.

Day Two: Dining out

Today’s goal: Find Missoula restaurants where local ingredients are regularly featured.

Breakfast: Two eggs over-medium, Lifeline bacon and Montana wheat toast at the Catalyst Café, $6.

Lunch: Montana burger with local tomato, onion and mixed greens salad at Scotty’s Table, $9.50.

Dinner: Pizza with Montola oil-brushed crust made from Montana wheat, cauliflower, fennel, meatballs and onions at Biga Pizza, $12.

There’s nothing better than a fresh, local egg. Supermarket eggs with watery, pale yolks don’t compare to the rich, dark orange of a local, free-range chicken’s egg. Today I check out some of the restaurants in town that serve local fare. I eat breakfast at the Catalyst Café—two fresh eggs, local bacon and toast made from eastern Montana wheat.

“In the springtime Lucy [Brieger of Lifeline Farm] from Victor will call me and say, ‘Oh my gosh! My hens are going crazy!’” says Catalyst chef Martha Buser. “They start laying like mad. A couple of weeks in March and April we use her eggs. The yolks are practically red ’cause the chickens have been out running around in the garden.”

Buser fostered her interest in local ingredients while working at a restaurant called Zuni in San Francisco under Judy Rodgers, a protégé of famed organic food chef Alice Waters. Buser says Rodgers inspired her to pay attention to fresh ingredients, to care where they came from.

When she got to Missoula 12 years ago, Buser says she knew that the farmers’ market here was a vital aspect of the community. But at that time no one made deliveries—she had to either make trips to the local market herself, or drive to meet farmers in Dixon. In the last few years, that’s changed due to the Western Montana Grower’s Cooperative, a coalition of about 21 farms that originated from a development grant in Lake County.

The network utilizes one central person who takes phone calls from restaurants and coordinates deliveries with all co-op farms. It’s been extremely helpful to Buser that she only has to make one phone call to reach all those farms. In addition, the development of the Buy Fresh, Buy Local program through the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition (CFAC) has also helped coordinate restaurants and farmers because they meet and discuss their particular needs. For instance, ranchers often want to sell a whole animal, but many restaurants don’t yet have the storage space. “[We have] interesting discussions back and forth,” Buser says, “everyone talking about the obstacles from each perspective.”

But the movement to get local food to the majority of restaurants grinds slowly, and often that has to do with obstacles of perception.

“It’s been mildly successful.” Buser says. “The people who were already really into local food are the ones who really participate strongly. I think part of it is awareness. Some people don’t even know that they can get local food… and people think that it’s going to be more expensive.”

Expense remains, of course, one of the main arguments against local (and organic) foods.

“I don’t find that it’s that big of a price difference and the quality is so much better,” says Buser. “It lasts a lot longer too. You get mixed greens that come that were picked yesterday morning, half a mile a way. They can sit in the walk-in [refrigerator] for two weeks and still be beautiful.”

Recently, Buser had to order produce from California when Garden City Harvest lost crops to a hail storm.

“And when the [California produce] comes in it doesn’t look good,” she says. “It’s already been picked and in a warehouse somewhere for who-knows-how-many days.”

I visit Biga Pizza that evening for dinner. Owner and chef Bob Marshall makes me a special locavore pizza with Montola oil-brushed crust, cauliflower, fennel, meatballs and onions. It’s delicious, but with my overly strict diet, I can’t have cheese. As it turns out, cheese isn’t local at Biga—yet—and there’s a good reason why: lack of food processing. Remember how we lost all that food processing in the 1950s? Well, for people like Marshall who go through 300 pounds of cheese per week, and places like Lifeline who don’t have the facilities to grate that much cheese, the love connection between restaurant and producer can’t be made.

Day Three: Farmers’ Markets

Today’s goal: Make a gourmet meal out of farmers’ market goods.

Brunch: A dozen eggs, Lifeline ham, butter and cheese, and Johnson’s golden potatoes from the farmers’ markets.

Dinner: Lamb stir fried with snap peas, onion, garlic, zucchini, eggplant, carrots, hot peppers, lavender and thyme. Mixed greens salad with tomatoes, green onions and cucumbers, all from the farmers’ markets. Total cost for groceries runs $20. (Lavender and thyme free due to kindness.)

Slotnick says to enjoy a local meal, it’s best to go see what’s available first, then decide what the meal will be—which is the opposite of what most people do.

I drive to the Clark Fork River Market in anticipation of a heavy load. I pick up some lamb stir fry meat and ask Daniel, the rancher, how local his operation is. He says, “You know where the Starbucks is up Grant Creek? That’s our driveway. Whenever the sheep get thirsty they go there for their coffee.” I gather together eggplant, snap peas, zucchini, onions, garlic, carrots and hot peppers, all from tables of farmers from within the Missoula area. I ask a woman what kind of herbs go well with lamb stir fry and she breaks me off several pieces of lavender and thyme from a couple of her plants, refusing payment for them. For breakfast, I pick up eggs from the Bitterroot, golden potatoes from Johnson’s Farm, which is near Mullan, and Lifeline cheese, butter and ham.

A 2003 survey by CFAC found that about 641 farms called Missoula County home—which seems like a lot, but the average farm sales of 60 percent of those was about $2,500 or less. And these are small farms, averaging 403 acres with only half actually harvesting crops, according to the study. Between 1990 and 2000, developers subdivided 10,000 acres of Missoula County land, most of that being flat land that would be good for farming.

Neva Hassanein, an Environmental Studies professor at UM who specializes in agriculture, founded CFAC with Bonnie Buckingham and spearheaded a number of studies related to food in and around Missoula.

“The land issue is really tied to a larger idea and that is, we cannot rebuild a local food system without farm land and farmers,” she says. “The farmers’ market wouldn’t just materialize without the land. We are literally rooted in the soil.”

Currently, 8 percent of the land in Missoula County has agriculturally important soil. And of that 8 percent, only part of the soil—about 30,462 acres according to a 2005 Natural Resources Conservation Service map—is considered “prime.” The rest of the 8 percent is considered either “of statewide importance”—19,446 acres—which means the soil is farmable but not as high in quality, or “of local importance”—83,847 acres—which is even a step lower in soil quality. And to top it all off, nobody has figured out how much of this 8 percent has been built on or subdivided.

“A lot of that land where that good soil is lies directly in the path of development, places like Orchard Homes and Target Range and places out Mullan Road, toward Frenchtown, some up the Blackfoot,” says Hassanein. “The land is flat and well-drained, and developers need those kinds of things because it’s cheaper to develop.”

Physical reasons don’t solely drive the trend of farmland turning to houses. Current economics make it difficult for farmers and ranchers to make much of a living—and, in fact, many hold a second job. The value is in the land.

“Those farm families have invested their whole livelihood in the land, literally their retirement is in the land. In order to retire and get a return on their investment, you know, who’s there to sell it to? Developers. And…even if there are new farmers who want to get started farming they can’t necessarily afford it. They certainly can’t…pay for it by farming [the land].”

In the early 1900s, a government movement called the Country Life Club arose because there was a sense that people were losing interest in farm life. Though the movement didn’t catch on in a lot of places, it did in Missoula, in the form of the Orchard Homes Country Life Center and much of its land was divvied up into farm plots.

In the early 1930s, my great grandfather, state horticulturalist George L. Knight, said in a speech to the Professional Women’s Club at the YWCA, “If the present rate of decrease in the use of Montana produce keeps up, no Montana products at all will be used in a very few years.” So this is not a new concern, but the fear of losing land and Montana products is becoming reality—even with the rise of farmers’ markets and a heightened interest in local food.

I enjoy lamb stir fry tonight with veggies, plus a fresh mixed green salad with tomatoes, green onions and cucumbers, all from the farmers’ markets. It doesn’t seem so hard to buy local in many ways, especially when you have a summer full of Saturday markets. But is that enough?

“The question is: Are we going to do anything to protect this resource base?” asks Hassanein. “I came to the realization a number of years ago that we can create markets for local food, we can encourage the restaurants to buy local and we can get the university and the schools to try to buy local. But we can’t necessarily serve those markets because the very resource base that we’re depending on is eroding.”

And for some time, there’s been no mechanism to preserve farm soils. For decades now, local governments have written off the loss of agricultural land as merely “incremental.” And incremental chunks of land, over time, add up.

Day Four: Fishing and gathering

Goal: Hunt and gather food.

Brunch: Leftovers from the farmers’ markets.

Dinner: Basil and salmon fried in Lifeline butter, raspberries from the U-pick in Arlee, morels cooked in butter and garlic and a handful of currants picked straight from a tree in the UM parking lot. Mint from Mount Jumbo and honey from Arlee make for a cup of tea. The cost includes a resident conservation license, $8, plus $18 annual fishing license. The honey runs $2, the raspberries $2 per pound.

One thing I do know how to do is fish. Today, I enlist my dad to go on a fishing expedition with me just 15 minutes out of town on the Blackfoot River. We catch grasshoppers along the side of the highway and store them in a plastic bag. Several fishing holes look promising, deep dark waters beneath bleached out logs.

After an hour or so, my dad and I manage to snag one cutthroat (which we throw back) and two inedible pikeminnows. If I were a true hunter and gatherer I’d spend all day out there, but we both have other responsibilities. I end up doing what any reasonable person would do: pull two salmon out of the freezer that I caught ice fishing at Georgetown Lake last winter.

In the time between pre-agricultural hunting and gathering and the development of our current industrial food system, the idea of food as essential to a particular season and landscape has all but disappeared. The science of food has replaced the traditional knowledge of food, and agribusiness distributors can pick and choose land as they please, making farmers only valuable in relation to how cheap they can sell “goods.” Capitalism, yes. But the fact is, our local and state economies still matter, and when we gut our local food system for a global one, we don’t capture the potential wealth—economic and cultural—of Montana’s agrarian resources.

Grow Montana, which started in 2005 from a Kellogg grant, is a broad-based coalition working on the state’s food policy. During the 2007 Montana Legislature, the group initiated a bill that helped support the state’s local food network. SB 328 provided an exception to the Montana Procurement Act, which requires public institutions like universities and K-12 schools to buy the cheapest food possible, and consider Montana-grown ingredients. Grow Montana also recently pushed for and received the green light to conduct a value-added production study looking into how we can process Montana meat and produce. Currently, state suppliers ship raw food (when it’s often at its lowest value) out of state to be processed—into sausage, canned goods, etc.—and sold at a higher price. But because Montana doesn’t process the food itself, we see none of that value recirculate into our economy.

Crissie McMullan, a graduate of UM’s Environmental Studies program who helped launch the farm-to-college program as part of her graduate portfolio, was the first full-time staffer at Grow Montana. She says their most recent project is a statewide farm-to-cafeteria program.

“Montanans could eat 75 percent of their food from local sources; that’s not an unrealistic number,” she says. “In 1950, 70 percent of our food was grown here and I think it would be great to get back to that…but it will look different. It’s not like the food system was perfect in the past and that we’re trying to go back to this perfect Eden. There have always been problems and it will have to look new because the world is different.”

One way it could be different from five decades ago, perhaps, is more personal fishing and hunting.

Day Five: Preserving

Today’s goal: Focus on food that can be preserved.

Brunch: Scrambled eggs, morels, raspberries and mint tea, all leftovers from the farmers’ markets and previous days’ collections.

Dinner: Deer meat canned with local vegetables, including garlic potatoes, tomatoes and onions, and a side dish of pickled green beans. Cost of a dozen mason jars, $8.99.

A local food system in Montana hardly exists without preservation, whether it be curing, drying, canning or freezing your bounty. Tonight I pop open the lid of a preserved jar of deer meat (courtesy of my brother) mixed with canned local vegetables, including tomatoes and onions. It’s all been marinating in there, air locked since 2004. I eat pickled green beans for a side dish, and decide that it’s really time I learned to can my own food.

While preserving mostly brings to mind the family household—my mother pickling green beans and my dad making mustard pickle relish, or “chow chow”—it was at Biga Pizza with Bob Marshall that I got the most insight on eating seasonally.

“People come here in February and are like, ‘Oh I hear you’re all local.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, well, have you looked outside? It’s a tundra out there,’” Marshall says in his usual dry humor. “I could serve pickled foods and I could come up with some way of freezing and canning…or only serving reindeer sausage in the winter, but I feel like in the restaurant industry people want to eat foods that are out of season.”

But with a reputation as a restaurant that serves local food, Marshall tries to stick to his guns when he can. He says he attempts to anticipate what will be in demand, but also provides seasonal fare that people will want once they hear that it’s in season.

The winter menu includes a chutney from frozen Flathead cherries with pork shoulder sausage, as well as a winter squash and leek pizza.

“So I stockpile 500 pounds of winter squash in the basement to try to use as much seasonal things as possible. Conversely, people e-mail me in the summer and say, ‘Why did you take the cherry chutney pizza off the menu?’ It’s like, “Well, because we have arugula now,’” he says, laughing.

Marshall bought 50 pounds of figs last year that lasted all winter. When he got dried porcini mushrooms from local musician and mushroom hunter Charlie Hopkins, he made porcini oil that lasted the entire winter.

“You just gotta be resourceful and get things from local people as much as you can. I love the challenge,” he says.

Both Marshall and Buser at the Catalyst are sympathetic to restaurant owners who don’t make it a priority to buy local. Last minute decisions and the need for menu flexibility make it a challenge. But for them, it works.

“It would be shortsighted pennywise and pound foolish for me to use convenience products…for short-term gain,” Marshall says. “And if, God forbid, we couldn’t get anything out of the state because of resource limitations or any kind of blockades in any respect, if we don’t have a sustainable program in place, we’re going to be lost.”

Day Six: Community Garden Raid

Today’s goal: Make a vegetarian meal from food that can be found in a community garden.
Breakfast: Coffee from The Good Food Store, $12.99 per pound.
Lunch: Leftovers from Biga Pizza.
Dinner: Zucchini bake with yellow squash, zucchini, squashed golden tomatoes (to emulate sauce), carrots and Lifeline butter, all layered with Lifeline cheddar and Montzarella cheese. Cost includes a Garden City Harvest Community Garden plot, $40, and seeds for the vegetables, $1.50 per packet.

It’s not that I have headaches or can’t live without the taste of coffee for a week, but I just can’t seem to get myself in gear. So I break down and get a cup of coffee, making sure it’s Fair Trade and labeled with its point of origin—Nicaragua, where I happened to travel a year and a half ago. I figure that’s almost like local food for me.

Ari LeVaux then explains to me that eating purely local food doesn’t have to be an absolute and that things like coffee and spices are fine. They’re “slow boat” items that last without refrigeration, which means less impact on the planet than, say, a banana. I feel a lot better.

I head down at dusk to the UM Community Gardens where several people I know have garden plots. My mom remembers raiding gardens, and there’s something romantic about the idea of climbing over a fence at night to taste the cool flesh of a cucumber or the startling tartness of raspberries, all stolen and, therefore, forbidden. My mom says the woman she stole raspberries from finally caught her and said, “If you’d just ask, I’d give you some.”

Perhaps the stolen fruit tastes better, but in my case I take the safer route and ask if I can scrounge through the huge, prickly leaves of my friends’ green patches to find myself a squash or two. I also find some golden tomatoes and carrots, and I take just enough for a meal. My kitchen, in fact, is getting quite full of local food. And I’m finding that I have more than enough to choose from.

Before I make a zucchini bake, I talk with an old classmate of mine, Paul Hubbard. For his Environmental Studies master’s degree, Hubbard is trying to keep agricultural land under the stewardship of farmers and ranchers. His program—which falls under the umbrella of CFAC—acts like a matchmaking service between land-seeking farmers and producer-seeking landowners.

“There are a lot of barriers to farmers getting onto land,” he says. “Land Link is a resource to link farmers and ranchers with landowners who want to see their land in agriculture, and also bringing in the other tools and technical assistance for making that transition happen.”

Hubbard has also been meeting with the city to discuss smart development of land where, he says, developers and city officials have to collaborate for preservation of agricultural land to work. The fact that developers and the city are actually talking about local food—whether they all agree or not—constitutes progress.

“In some places community gardens are going to be appropriate, in others it will be small and medium-sized farms within subdivisions with dwelling units arranged around the farmland,” he says. “It’s going to be part of our food-secure future. This isn’t a prescription solution. We really need creativity and some collaborative leadership from the development community.”

Hubbard studied various agricultural/residential development solutions utilized by other states. A mitigation ordinance in Davis, Calif., for instance, states that for every acre of farmland lost to development, two acres must be preserved. Another tactic is similar to carbon trading. In this case, development rights transfer from agricultural lands (which gain easements to preserve them in perpetuity) to desired areas of high-density growth. Hubbard’s Land Link program is another preservation strategy.

“We need to start taking an active role in planning how we’re going to eat,” he says. “We’re going to be very hungry if we continue to rely on outside sources and we’re going to be paying for all the oil to get it here.”

Day Seven: Food security

Today’s goal: Showcase local items at the Food Bank that are accessible to low-income residents.
Breakfast: Eggs over-medium, toast and bacon at the Catalyst, $6.
Lunch: Leftover zucchini bake.
Dinner: Swiss chard steamed and then cooked in butter, mixed greens with tomatoes and canned carrots, toast with butter and a side of canned apples. All free with interview and completed paperwork at the Food Bank.

Eight of the 10 poorest counties in the United States are in Montana and every single one of those counties is agriculturally based.

At the Missoula Food Bank the number of people coming in for food reached a record high in April, and Nick Roberts, the Food Bank’s development director, says he’s pretty sure July beat that record. Roberts takes me through the process of how a person who needs food might obtain it at the Food Bank, and what access they have to fresh local produce.

First, clients fill out a basic identification form and then volunteers check to make sure they’re not going over their limit of two visits per month. Clients sit in a partitioned desk for a little privacy while they consult with the volunteer, getting a chance to learn about other resources and services they might need. Then they take a shopping cart and a customized list—determined by family size—of items from which they are allowed to pick. Local food makes up a major part of the fresh produce. Garden City Harvest contributes fresh veggies daily, along with some other local farmers who donate their harvests.

“It’s so valuable on many different levels,” says Roberts. “They allow us to have a bigger variety on our shelves, period. We do not buy perishable goods ever. We can’t afford to do that. But also—and we hear this directly from clients—it’s a meaningful interaction on intangible levels when clients know that they’re getting food grown here. It reconnects them to the land and their community that they’re not going to have access to with their own checkbook…That’s as poignant as it gets.”

Bonnie Buckingham, who has a long history working with the Food Bank and is now coordinator of CFAC, says fresh, local food shouldn’t only be available to those who can afford it.

“Because, really, if you say, ‘Okay, you can have a pound of carrots or six macaroni and cheese dinners,’ what are you going to do?” she asks. “If your kids are hungry, macaroni and cheese is going to feed them for a lot longer than a few carrots. It’s choices that they have to make and it’s not really their ignorance or lack of interest. People want to provide healthy food for their kids and if they can’t economically do that, they do what they can.”

I roll my cart to the local produce section where Roberts points out what I can take for my local food meal that day. There’s some swiss chard, a tomato, Wheat Montana bread and mixed greens. In the canned food section there’s another interesting local—or, at least, Montana-made—product. White-labeled cans with stark drawings of fruit and vegetables line the shelf, filled with preserved carrots and apples, all processed and canned in the Deer Lodge Prison. I take one of each.

“I believe that food is a right for all people,” says Buckingham about the importance of including low-income families in the local food network. “And giving people choices about the food they consume—and it is a very personal choice—it’s something that everyone can relate to in some way because everyone has to eat, so everyone is a stakeholder in developing our food system.”

Full pantry, full stomach

This wasn’t hard. I have a refrigerator full of locally grown food and a new-found respect for slow boat ingredients. I’ve learned that being a locavore can be accomplished, especially if you get over the misperception that it’s about depriving yourself. It’s not. It’s about eating thoughtfully.

That said, the network is not nearly as strong as it needs to be to shift our current reliance—that 90 percent figure—on out-of-state food. As Missoula continues to grow and develop, and the population increases, advocates like Slotnick, Hassanein, McMullan, Hubbard, Buser, Marshall, Buckingham and Roberts face a persistent challenge.

“The global economy institutionalizes a global ignorance in which producers and consumers cannot know or care about one another,” writes farmer and author Wendell Berry, “and in which all the histories of our products will be lost.”

And Slotnick agrees that no matter how noble, moral, thoughtful or caring we are as people, not knowing where our food comes from (or any other item) makes us not care about it. But he does see some remedies for the situation if we all decide to make major changes to state and federal funding.

“I’m not opposed at all to subsidizing the kind of world that we want,” he says. “We subsidize agriculture right now to a great degree and we could redirect that. Our state has this humongous surplus this year…and if someone wants to start a food processing type entity in eastern Montana, hire [local] people and use products created there—oh my God! Let’s get them grants, no-interest loans.”

In other words, taking an interest in food as not just a commodity, but a conduit to creating meaningful relationships to the ground we stand on and the people with whom we interact; that’s what counts here.

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