The farm-to-food bank program would benefit many

Montana is fortunate to be a state with farmers, ranchers, and organizations committed to providing quality food to our communities. Unfortunately, local fresh food remains out of reach for many due to their income levels.

The Montana Farm to Food Bank program (House Bill 276, sponsored by Rep. Marty Malone, R – HD 59) aims to change that. Right now, state legislators have the ability to feed families, boost rural economies, and strengthen local food systems by supporting HB 276. The Montana Farm to Food Bank will make sure more of the wonderful foods grown right here in Montana end up on more Montana dinner tables.

Farm-to-Food Bank programs are operating with great success in a growing number of strong agribusiness states. The Montana Program would bring together the Montana Department of Agriculture, smallholder farmers and ranchers, local food supplies and other non-profit organizations to create new markets for local producers and to connect more community members with Montana-grown food and create lasting change that would blow the ball move forward to end hunger in Montana.

The Farm to Food Bank program would leverage the knowledge, experience, and resources of public, private, and not-for-profit groups to foster enduring partnerships and build the necessary infrastructure for an enduring connection between local foods and Montana’s food supply network.

It’s no secret that families, food banks, and small farmers and ranchers in Montana face ongoing challenges such as inflation, labor and supply chain disruptions. In recent months, food supplies in Montana have fed a record number of households, including many working families who have never needed food assistance before. Recent data shows that approximately one in seven children in our state — more than 31,000 children in Montana — lives in nutritionally insecure households.

Quality food is fundamental to health and food insecurity can have long-term effects on physical and mental health. Fresh, nutritious food is often the first thing thrown away when budgets are tight and families are faced with an impossible choice between food and other necessities such as shelter, heating and medicine.

When Montanans face tough times, they can turn to food banks, food supplies, and other local organizations. Together, local food supplies and Montana Food Bank Network partners provide food assistance to an average of 38,000 Montana homes each month, distributing tens of millions of dollars of food each year.

Pantries want to offer more local foods to their communities, keep more money in the local economy, while still offering fresh, quality foods to their customers. A growing number of pantries are establishing relationships with local producers.

However, most do not have the budget to buy food directly from growers and ranchers, nor the space to store it. The Montana Farm to Food Bank program proposed in HB 276 creates the resources, partnerships and structure needed to reliably get Montana food to more Montana food supplies and the households they serve.

The proposed Montana Farm to Food Bank program also directly supports Montana’s farmers and ranchers by creating a new market for producers in their local communities. By providing pantries with the resources to purchase more local food at fair market value, the Montana Farm to Food Bank will help local food systems thrive, support rural economies and help build a safer Montana.

Food banks, farmers, health care workers and others are urging the Legislature to support Montana Farm to Food Bank. We hope our state legislators will recognize the importance of building healthy, resilient, and economically viable communities in Montana. We call on state legislators to support local growers and keep more of Montana’s incredible agricultural bounty in our communities by passing House Bill 276.

Gayle Carlson, Montana Food Bank Network; Walter Schweitzer, Montana Farmers Union; Maura Henn, Grow Montana Food Policy Coalition; dr Lauren Wilson, Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics