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With the holidays approaching, you can't enter a grocery store without coming across a donation box for your local food bank. This year, not only are food banks trying to obtain food donations for families who struggle during the holidays, but they are also trying to acquire donations to ensure they have supplies for the coming months.

The American economy is in bad shape, and the result is high unemployment, escalating energy costs and major increases in food prices. These factors are directly affecting food security in the U.S. and

99 percent of food banks have witnessed a significant increase in the number of people they served since last year.

Food banks were first developed during the Great Depression as a short-term method for dealing with the economic crisis. Yet as of late, federal budget cuts in assistance programs have caused significant gaps in services, and policymakers are expecting private emergency food networks to fill those gaps. Food banks are finding this difficult. Once a short-term solution, they have become staples in communities across the U.S. and it is time to look at more sustainable ways to deal with food insecurity.

So what exactly is food insecurity? It is not knowing where your next meal will come from and having to make tough choices regarding food and other daily needs. Thus, low-wage jobs plus high costs for housing, medical care, child care, utilities and transportation all contribute. National data show that

10 percent of Montanans experience food insecurity n over 93,000 people.

Food insecurity has been addressed primarily at the individual level through emergency food assistance, resulting in the strain on food banks. Addressing this problem requires a comprehensive community approach that considers and links all aspects of the food system including production, processing, distribution and consumption. The community food security movement arose to create comprehensive approaches.

The goals of community food security include improving access to fresh nutritious foods for the entire community, creating more direct links between local producers and consumers, ensuring the stability of local farm and ranching operations based on sustainable practices, and developing policies to promote local production, processing and consumption.

One example of a comprehensive approach to food insecurity here is the Missoula Community Co-op. It is a collaboratively envisioned solution toward local sustainability and health. The co-op links Missoula residents with local and regional farmers in a business structure that allows for greater community leadership and shared economic justice for producers, consumers and employees. Historically, 67 percent of the food consumed in western Montana was locally grown and processed. Now it is around 5 percent. MCC wants to help change by encouraging responsible consumption and sustainable business.

MCC is dedicated to providing affordable access to healthful foods and supporting Montana producers. Working membership is open to everyone and helps keep prices low by keeping overhead at a minimum. In addition to keeping overhead low, more members shopping results in a higher volume of products purchased, which in turn lowers prices. Working membership also engages members in the day-to-day operations of the store and decision-making process.

The Missoula Community Co-op is empowering the community to address food insecurity in Missoula and surrounding areas. Some other community food security projects in Missoula include efforts made by the Missoula Community Food and Agriculture Coalition. CFAC has advocated for the Farmers Market EBT Program and led the Montana Farm to School program. The North Missoula Community Development Corporation is developing the Community Kitchen Café project, which would offer affordable meals, an education component, a place to preserve food and a place to run a small food-related business. For more information, visit www.missoulacfac.org or www.missoulacommunitycoop.com.

Building on the strengths of traditional approaches, as well as community food security projects, we can overcome the causes that produce food insecurity and ultimately reduce the burden that has been placed upon emergency food programs in the U.S.

Keegan Flaherty is a social work master's degree candidate at the University of Montana completing her practicum at the Missoula Community Co-op, and writes from Missoula.

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