Fight the Man: eat locally grown food!

by Jay Stevens 

While we’re all waiting for the outcome of the SCOTUS case on climate change, which will decide whether our government has the right to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, let’s consider one way we can actually do something the problem – and reduce petroleum consumption, promote healthier eating, and improve the lot of family farms: farm-to-table projects.

I was reminded of this by an Ed Kemmick column in the Gazette recently, which detailed the hopes of a Glendive man who wants to promote consuming local agricultural products in Montana. Kemmick’s column concentrated on the benefits Bruce Smith’s culinary school and associated promotion would have on Montana’s agricultural community. Kemmick further emphasized this in a blog post, which says that farm-to-table projects cut out the middlemen and put that money into farmers’ and restaurateurs’ pockets:

Smith pointed out that 72 percent of every food dollar now goes to “the middleman,” which is a catch-all term encompassing those involved in transportation, marketing, advertising and whatnot. It does seem to make sense that producing, selling and eating foods locally should put money in the pockets of farmers and consumers, and it undoubtedly will result in better food.

One shortcoming in Kemmick’s articles is that he neglected the environmental benefits of farm-to-table projects: they reduce the amount of fuel used to transport produce and meat.

Here in Missoula, a number of Environmental Studies grad students started the University of Montana’s successful “farm-to-college” project, which encourages the university to purchase food from local farmers and ranchers. The school, of course, moved ahead slowly, but has ended up buying a substantial portion of its food locally:

These inquiries culminated in a festive breakfast event called Montana Mornings. Menus were printed, with detailed descriptions of the origins of all ingredients. Eggs from Moiese were cooked into omelets, stuffed with shitake mushrooms from Ninemile, shallots and cheese from the Bitterroot, and salsa from Belgrade. Cider syrup from Bitterroot apples was poured over Cream of the West hot cereal, made in Harlowton. Waffles from Scobey, bacon and potatoes from Kalispell, and beef from Ronan were on the menu as well.

Besides a publicity event, Montana Mornings was a market test, an attempt to assess student interest in local food. The response, based on an exit survey, was very positive. Most breakfast eaters said they would choose local food on a regular basis if they could. Encouraged, FTC rolled forward.

Three years and more than $1.2 million later, the program’s purchases exceed 13 percent of the UDS annual food budget. “Farm to College has become standard operating procedure,” says UDS Executive Chef Tom Siegel. “At first, finding new vendors was this big effort. Now we have our inroads laid. We know our vendors. We’ve made the leap; it’s not new anymore. It’s the way we do business.”

So how much does this help our environment and reduce carbon emissions?

Another member of Hassanein’s Action Research Group is Kimberly Spielman, a graduate student in geography. She’s doing her thesis on a concept called food miles, or the number of miles a product travels from farm, through supply chain, to the consumer. Spielman has done extensive research comparing the food miles traveled by an FTC burger and fries with those traveled by a conventional equivalent made from ingredients purchased through SYSCO. By comparing the routes, from points of production to consumption, of beef, buns, potatoes, and oil, she found that, for fiscal year 2005, a year’s worth of non-local burgers and fries traveled 110,450 miles, while the FTC equivalent traveled 33,624 miles, burning 43,184 fewer gallons of diesel fuel. Nearly a million fewer pounds of carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere via the local burger and fries.

That’s not insignificant, especially considering the university could still probably get another 40 or 50 percent of its food locally, if historical consumption patterns could still hold true today.

It’s an elegant solution to a serious problem – a solution that benefits Montanans economically and physically. But it’s also a solution that runs against the “free market,” despite its obvious benefits to both suppliers and consumers. It’s no coincidence that both projects – in Missoula and Glendive – are run under the auspices of state-funded institutions. That’s because farm-to-table projects do exactly what Kemmick says: they cut out the middlemen, who in the case of farm products, are huge multinational agricultural corporations. Until the distribution networks are established, the farm-to-table projects will have to be organized and run by the consumer – grocery stores, restaurants, individual households – who will have to seek out locally produced food.

Here in Missoula, there are Garden City Harvest’s community gardens, in which you can work a few hours a week for pretty much all the vegetables you and your family can eat. (Or you can buy a “share” of the harvest for a fraction of what it costs in the stores.) Hunting is also an excellent means of acquiring food while conserving fuel.

  1. i want to know where i can get information on food in montana

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