A sprawling network of people and institutions are re-crafting our notions of food systems and healthy communities, starting with kids

Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Greg Lindstrom
Food comes from somewhere.

That simple truth often gets lost in our modern world of supermarkets and industrial agriculture, or at least our notion of “somewhere” is widely misplaced, because for most of us, food comes from produce and meat aisles, or boxes, cans, containers and plastic bags. It’s easy to forget that it actually comes from dirt and water, from seeds and sunlight, from plants and living animals, from farmers and ranchers.

Of course, we all know that, on a conceptual level, but many of us never get the opportunity to see it beyond a concept, even in farm-rich Montana, because most of us don’t grow or raise or own food. But there are armies of people working hard to change that, to reconnect us to our food sources and, in turn, reintroduce us to our ancestral roots.

Our parents and grandparents had a closer relationship to their food than we do, and their relationships were typically less intimate than those of their parents and grandparents. According to FoodCorps, 70 percent of the food Montanans consumed in 1950 was grown and processed in state. Today, that number is 10 percent. The numbers illustrate how much of our homegrown sustenance, in a state where agriculture is among the biggest industries, is shipped beyond our borders.

Robin Kelson, owner of the Good Seed Company in Whitefish

Those figures help explain the rise of Montana’s local-food movement, along with factors such as health awareness, concerns over wastefulness and culinary-inclined palates. In the last decade-plus, there has been a proliferation of small-scale farms, including community-supported agriculture operations, in the Flathead and elsewhere. Farmers markets, healthy-food programs at schools and other institutions, and restaurant menus loaded with local ingredients serve as further evidence of the movement’s ascent. These efforts are planting seeds to ensure the movement flourishes and expands into the future.

Robin Kelson is starting at the ground level, or below ground, to be specific. As the owner of Whitefish-based Good Seed Company, Kelson promotes a fresh way of approaching food production that isn’t actually new at all. In fact, localized seed sharing, and thus tailoring and adapting growing to traits specific to a region’s climate and culture, is how veggies and crops were grown throughout post-hunter-gatherer human history, before the post-World War II rise of industrial agriculture and behemoth seed companies, which, by nature of mass commercialization, tend to use one-size-fits-all seed production and distribution.

“Humans had been passing down seeds for 10,000 years,” Kelson said.

Kelson’s seeds — heirloom, non-GMO and open-pollinated — are used at community-shared agriculture farms, private gardens and other growing operations throughout Western Montana, as well as elsewhere across the country. Kelson earned her master’s of biology from MIT, which launched a career as a scientist before she got her law degree and worked as a patent attorney. The scientist in her led her to start asking questions about modern health ailments, and the answers led her to where she is today.

Before the ubiquity of industrial seeds and chemical herbicides and fertilizers — which are intertwined enough to render widespread genetically modified Roundup Ready crops — growers routinely swapped seeds within their communities from plants that had done well in their gardens or farms, perpetuating characteristics that thrived in those specific climates and conditions, and thus rendering resiliency and sustainability. Kelson also notes that large-scale industrial agriculture diminishes nutrients in soil.

Over the decades, our country shifted away from seed-sharing, but it has been making a return with the local-foods movement, although there have been growers and organizations maintaining the tradition for decades, including the Iowa-based Seed Savers Exchange. The exchange was established in Missouri in 1975 and today includes 13,000 members and 20,000 plant varieties. Its mission is to fight “threats to biodiversity” and “conserve and promote America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage.”

Kelson describes varieties of corn seeds

Kelson has been doing her part to maintain that heritage in the Flathead. In 2016, she and three other organizers held a seed-swap event called Free the Seeds at Flathead Valley Community College, expecting maybe 300 people to attend. Instead, 1,600 showed up. The interest was obvious.

“All we did was create a space for the community to gather,” she recalled. “And, boy, did they gather.”

On March 3 of this year, the third annual Free the Seeds event once again drew a robust crowd and featured 23 educational workshops, along with 40 booths with information and resources. Kelson also partners with the ImagineIf Library in Columbia Falls to offer a public seed library, where growers can drop off their seeds and pick up others from green thumbs around the region.

Meanwhile, innovative programs are taking hold in Montana’s schools to equip children with the knowledge and desire to shape our food systems in the coming generations. As the stewards of our future, they will grow what we eat and influence the mechanisms by which it’s prioritized, processed, stored and distributed.

One such program is Harvest of the Month, which began three years ago as a pilot project and is now a fully formed statewide program with 143 participating K-12 schools, overseen by Montana State University’s farm-to-school coordinator, Aubree Roth, as a collaboration between several entities, including the Office of Public Instruction, MSU Extension, National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), Montana Team Nutrition Program and FoodCorps Montana.

In Harvest of the Month, participating schools focus on promoting the month’s selected harvest — a Montana-grown veggie, starch, grain or animal — by serving it in school lunches, offering taste tests for students and conducting educational lessons and activities highlighting its “nutritional and agricultural aspects.” The two primary goals are to expose students to healthy, local foods and support Montana’s farmers and ranchers.

Carrot seeds

The program has been popular and effective enough to prompt a spin-off pilot program for preschools, health-care institutions, grocery stores, food pantries and other potential partners. Featured harvests have included beets, beef, carrots, apples, grains, and squash. In the future, there will be cherries, beans, dairy products and more.

“We would love to see how Harvest of the Month works in all food-service environments,” said Demetrius Fassas, Montana local foods program specialist for NCAT, a national organization headquartered in Butte.

Fassas says that forming a relationship between kids and their food, complete with an understanding of its origins and background story, gets students excited about their meals in a way they otherwise wouldn’t.

“We’ve seen that taking that approach drastically improves their likelihood of actually eating the fruits and vegetables that show up on the lunch line,” Fassas said. “It’s that connection to the food.”

“When you actually meet a kid who has no idea where food comes from,” he added, “it blows their mind to know that there’s more beyond the grocery store and that there are livings things that are part of what gives them energy.”

Fassas says schools that have their own gardens deepen those connections further, giving kids the opportunity to plant vegetables, grow and maintain them, and finally harvest and eat them.

“That connection is much deeper than I had with Pop Tarts when I was that age,” he said. “When you look at real food, whole food, you can tie that into the community, and the inherent, intrinsic value is increased for the kid eating it.”

Harvest of the Month is but one of many NCAT programs that have championed “small-scale, local, and sustainable solutions to reduce poverty, promote healthy communities, and protect natural resources,” with a particular focus on providing resources to support sustainable agriculture among Montana farmers.

Seed packets from the Good Seed Company in Whitefish

The organization was established in 1976 after an energy conference was held in Washington D.C. on the heels of the 1973-74 oil embargo. During the conference, national energy leaders discussed the importance of developing inexpensive, non-energy-intensive technologies to help low-income communities through the energy crisis.

One of the energy leaders in attendance was Dr. Jerry Plunkett, director of a magnetohydrodynamics coal-conversion facility in Butte. Plunkett convinced Sen. Mike Mansfield, with whom he had a relationship, to support a bill to fund a “national center for appropriate technology.” Thanks to the men’s ties to Montana, Butte was chosen as the center’s location.

As Fassas has heard the story, Mansfield only agreed to support it, with funding provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, if Butte would forever remain the headquarters.

“So here lies this center for community agriculture and sustainable resources in the midst of Superfund,” Fassas said.

Today, NCAT is nationally recognized for “providing research-based technical assistance and information in the fields of sustainable agriculture, sustainable energy, and community development.” It has regional offices in Arkansas, California, New Hampshire and Texas, guided by leaders in their respective fields, including engineers, architects, economists, entomologists and a wide range of agriculture and livestock experts.

Fassas said the Harvest of the Month offshoot pilot program launched last year in three towns: Livingston, Missoula and Kalispell. The Flathead was a no-brainer.

“We wanted to find communities fired up about supporting farmers in their region, and the Flathead is a fertile ground for that,” he said. “By comparison to the rest of the state, the diversity of the foods grown there is amazing. For goodness sake, you can get Montana-grown peaches there.”

Among the participating Kalispell institutions so far are Kalispell Regional Healthcare, Kalispell Public Schools, the Early Childhood Center at FVCC, Northwest Montana Head Start, and Sweet Pea Outdoor School.

Garlic greens at the Whitefish Farmers Market

Seth Bostick, executive chef at Kalispell Regional Medical Center, cites an instance that encapsulated the goal of Harvest of the Month. A mother and child were eating lunch at the hospital and started talking about the program, which the child also encountered at school.

“It became a launching point for a conversation around fresh Montana-grown food,” Bostick said.

Indeed, the program is intended to be a launching point, not an end game. By reaching kids while they’re young, before they’ve settled into their ingrained adult lifestyles and habits, healthy-food advocates hope to give them the information and tools they need to build better communities when they come of age.

In general, schools are taking a more hands-on approach to nutrition, including establishing their own gardens. Schools in Kalispell, Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Bigfork, Lakeside and Somers maintain gardens, some as independent programs and others in coordination with organizations like FoodCorps, whose mission is to connect “kids to healthy food in school, so they can lead healthier lives and reach their full potential.”

Caitlin Coghlan is Kalispell’s FoodCorps service member, working with Kalispell Middle School as well as Elrod and Hedges elementary schools. There are also FoodCorps service members in Columbia Falls, Lakeside and Bigfork. Coghlan assists at the middle school’s garden, with the goal of helping teachers, students and community members run it on their own after she leaves next year.

The middle school recently, through a grant, retrofitted its greenhouse, where potatoes, onions, garlic, beets, squash and pumpkin starts will be planted this spring. Last year, students made pumpkin pies from gourds grown in a compost bin.

Echoing Fassas, Coghlan said it’s inspiring to see kids’ reactions as they learn through doing, or, as she says, by “getting dirty with food.”

“I brought in beets and carrots with the tops included, and kids said, ‘I didn’t know what they looked like!’” she said. “And then showing them the garden, they said, ‘Oh, that’s where that comes from!’”

“It’s astounding,” she added. “Just by giving them hands-on experience, they’re way more likely to eat it and understand where it comes from.”

Zi cao seeds from the Good Seed Company

The Center for Restorative Youth Justice utilizes a separate garden at the middle school for its Trellis Project, which brings together kids to grow and harvest food that is used in a large fundraiser dinner prepared by the teens under the supervision of Bostick from KRH. Participants last year included the Care Farm Program, which offers people with disabilities the chance to learn and socialize in agricultural settings.

Coghlan also facilitates Harvest of the Month locally, including taking a vegetable not so popular with kids — beets — and making it fun. Students made beet Valentines using the root’s juice and water as paint, and enjoyed beet-chocolate brownies.

“It’s about encouraging the culture of trying new foods — fruits and vegetables — that some kids aren’t as used to eating these days,” she said.

Harvest of the Month and other large programs of its kind rely on a wide network of partners, from growers, aggregators, processors, and distributors to the organizers and participating institutions, as well as numerous other helping hands. It takes a community to pave the road from farms to tables.

In the case of Harvest of the Month, Fassas said operations such as Quality Foods Distributing in Gallatin County are crucial to working with school districts and other big entities. Western Montana Growers Cooperative has been similarly vital, while Mission Mountain Food Enterprise in Ronan is critical for processing and storing and has gone out of its way to work with Bostick at KRH to customize flash-frozen, vacuum-sealed local tomatoes to meet specific needs and tastes.

Kelson, of the Good Seed Company, sees more people growing their own veggies and herbs in personal gardens, as well as a generally heightened awareness of their food sources, from homes to grocery stores to restaurants. In certain circles, the local-food movement, with each passing day, feels less like a movement and more like a way of life. Kelson, Fassas, Coghlan and others are excited to see how big those circles get.

“After World War II, we abdicated control of our food to companies,” Kelson said. “This is about taking control of your food source, taking control of your food and taking control of your health.”