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entmug Lori Grannis

According to the Garden City Harvest Web site, some 90 percent of produce purchased and eaten in our state is shipped in from elsewhere. If that’s true, just how did Missoula earn the moniker “The Garden City?”

GCH community outreach director Genevieve Jessop Marsh says the name stems from the area’s rich fruit and vegetable growing heritage. But she says preserving and expanding that effort through the proliferation of community gardening  and education is absolutely vital to keeping the moniker alive.

And that’s precisely the purpose behind last Sunday’s “Wintergreens” harvest dinner – a celebration and small fundraiser put on by the organization each year to thank the community, and celebrate accomplishments in sustainable growing.

The dinner, now in its 10th year, featured nearly all locally grown produce, including a tasty and truly original beet-and-feta bruschetta, fresh vegetable salad, three homemade soups – among them, spicy vegetarian chili, venison stew, and goat mulligatawny – followed by Lifeline Farms’ new potatoes tossed with herbs and melted Lifeline Dairy cheese. Goat used in soup was raised at the PEAS Farm last year.

At $15 a head, the dinner allowed more than just the fundraising set inside doors – though with Mayor John Engen at the mic for a pie and cake auction, $400 cakes went only to those with deep pockets.

“Most people can afford to come to this dinner,” says Marsh. And that makes it a great celebration of local food at winter’s end.

Shoulder-to-shoulder with multiple volunteers, local longtime chef and River Road garden manager Greg Price prepared food in Organic Sprouts’ Welcoma Club kitchen he’d stored all winter long. Carrots, onions, parsnips, beans and beets stored as part of GCH’s “Grub Shed” program found their way into bruschetta, salad and soups.

Since 1996, Garden City Harvest has led the charge of community food producing with an end game of sating local hunger.

Just last year, through its many programs and partnerships, Marsh says the organization was able to donate more than 30,000 pounds of fresh food to local food banks.

Garden City Harvest also educates the populace by way of various programs. Seven community gardens rent plots for $40 per growing season, and help members – including low-income folks – learn how to grow their own food.

Community gardens are also the place where people who’ve stepped outside the law can serve time doing community service. Likewise, youth courts partner with the gardens in the “Youth Harvest” program to provide an environment in which young people who’ve gone astray have a place to work the earth. Those involved in this program also help run the organization’s “mobile farmers market” for seniors, providing opportunities for multi-generational contact.

Three neighborhood farms run the “Volunteer for Veggies” program, where anyone can work the earth in exchange for an armful of produce at day’s end. River Road, Orchard Gardens and PEAS Farm are part of the community-supported agricultural programs offered through GCH, with a primary focus on growing food for the Missoula Food Bank and Poverello Center.

A kind of crown jewel of sustainable gardening, PEAS Farm encompasses nearly 10 acres of lush land near the end of Rattlesnake Valley’s Duncan Drive. That acreage produces around 50,000 pounds of food per growing season — with 40 percent donated to local hunger outlets each year.

PEAS Farm is a  partnership between Garden City Harvest and University of Montana’s environmental studies program. It also conducts student internships, and runs kids’ summer camps that teach sustainable growing and food source to the knee-high crowd.

Greg’s Betta-Feta Beet Bruschetta

12 medium beets, sliced

       1 baguette (pre-toasted slices)

1 or 2 small red onions

6 to 8 ounces feta

1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for additions during roasting

Salt, pepper, to taste

Dried basil, oregano

4 to 5 garlic cloves, minced

Optional: 1/2 cup pecans or walnuts, chopped

Step 1: Slice beets and onions thin in food processor, then pile into roasting pan, cover with 1/4 cup olive oil, and season with salt, pepper, garlic and dried spices. Roast at 400 to 450 degrees, and be diligent about checking on them every 15 minutes. Every half-hour to 40 minutes, check, taste and drizzle more olive oil with seasoning to taste. The last 10 minutes of caramelizing beets, add optional nuts. Remove from oven. Beets should be dark in color and sticky like candy.

Step 2: Mix in feta in an amount you prefer, toss, and spread on toasted baguette slices. Delicious, and serves six.

Lori Grannis may be reached at 360-8788 or eating.missoula@gmail.com.

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