A coalition of people interested in working to preserve farm and ranch lands and promote local food production in Missoula County earned double blessings this week.
Both the Missoula City Council and the Missoula Board of County Commissioners voted their support for the new Community Food and Agriculture Coalition. The coalition plans to take an integrated approach "from farm to fork."
"There's a lot of energy there," said Neva Hassanein, a University of Montana professor who co-led a two-year study of food issues in Missoula County. "We feel strongly that very soon there will be a visible presence of this council in Missoula."
The City Council voted its support without discussion Monday night. The commissioners supported it unanimously, with Commissioner Barbara Evans' caution that the coalition should advise on policy, not dictate it.
"Our intent here is not to tell people what to do," Hassanein said.
The coalition is forming to work on the issues raised by the Missoula County Community Food Assessment, "Food Matters: Farm Viability and Food Consumption in Missoula County," completed last year by a steering committee of people from various sectors of food and agriculture.
The study found that the food eaten by people in Missoula County travels an average of 1,300 miles to get here, and it changes hands about 33 times. Missoula County's agricultural lands are disappearing to development because market forces make farming and ranching less and less profitable, and makes subdividing immensely attractive. Farms are growing smaller. The market value of what farms produce averages $13,000 per farm, the study found.
At the same time, county residents said they support locally grown food. About 55 percent of people said they would like to see more locally grown food in grocery stores. And 82 percent of people said they were concerned about food safety.
Concerted efforts toward locally grown food can go far in increasing the food security of low-income people who use the Missoula Food Bank, said Bonnie Buckingham, the program manager at the Food Bank.
Heidi DeArment of the Clark Fork Coalition, who works with ranchers in the Clark Fork Valley, said she hears often from ranchers, "Why can't we sell beef locally?" And people say to her, "Why can't we buy local beef?"
Helen Atthowe, Missoula County horticulturist and a Bitterroot Valley vegetable farmer, also spoke in favor of the effort. She described two fledgling plans in the Extension Service now, one to help area livestock growers sell their products locally and another to connect local greens growers with a distributor and a large local buyer.
The coalition will consist of 15 to 20 people from multiple interests and will include one appointee each from the City Council and the county commissioners. It is taking applications for members now.
Among its first tasks is raising money, Hassanein said. A grant application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Community Food Projects program will be completed this month. The coalition is also looking into practical ways to protect farmland and help farmers and ranchers stay on their land.
"Once that farmland is gone, you can't get it back," Hassanein said. "We're going to need food in the future. And we can't eat pavement."
The county commissioners applauded the effort.
"Thank you for getting this in front of us," said Commissioner Bill Carey.
To apply to the coalition
A steering committee is looking for people who would like to be inaugural members of the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition for Missoula County. For information and a printable application packet on the Internet, go to www.umt.edu/cfa. Or call Bonnie Buckingham at the Missoula Food Bank at 549-0543 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org