Collaboration will provide produce boxes to families in need

by Whitney England
Daily Inter Lake | July 16, 2020 11:29 AM

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused local farmers to lose business from some of their markets, especially through school and restaurant closures, and also many families still face food insecurity as Montana navigates its fourth month of significant social impacts.

In an effort to aid the local farm-to-table market while providing fresh produce to those in need, the Western Montana Growers Cooperative and the Lake County Community Development Corporation partnered to produce “Farmers to Families Food Boxes.” A total of 6200 boxes will be filled with 10 pounds of fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, then distributed throughout many communities in western Montana over the next few months.

This project is funded mainly by a Farmers to Families Food Box contract under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which the Western Montana Growers Cooperative applied for twice. An initial application in early May was denied, but they were encouraged to reapply for the second wave of funding. The USDA approved the later application, however for a lesser amount of money than the cooperative originally requested.

The contract will provide most of the funding for food boxes through the end of August, but additional funding from the Headwaters Foundation, Montana Farmers Union and the USDA’s Local Food Promotion Program grant will help carry the project through mid-November, providing needy families with fresh food throughout the fall.

“The USDA Farmers to Families Program provides an excellent opportunity for local farmers to sell products that might otherwise go to waste,” Dave Prather, general manager at Western Montana Growers Cooperative expressed. “And connects Montanans in need with fresh and nutritious produce right from the farm. We are thankful to have the opportunity to participate.”

The cooperative will source the produce from their 50-plus member farms and deliver it to the Lake County Community Development’s Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center where the produce will be packed into family-sized boxes. The boxes will then be distributed to families by food pantries and other community organizations — some of which include the Montana Food Bank Network, SKC Community Health and Development, Polson Loaves and Fish Pantry, Ronan Bread Basket, Arlee Community Development Corporation, Mission Valley Food Pantry, and Flathead Reservation Community Action.

“This is another example of excellent collaboration between the Western Montana Growers Cooperative and the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center as we work together to increase access to local food by connecting our local producers and community during this pandemic,” Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center director Jan Tusick said.

With production that began Wednesday, the current contract will allow workers at the food enterprise center to pack 570 boxes per week through the end of August. Then from September through November they will be able to provide 180 farm boxes a week, however that number could increase with a potential renewal of the contract from the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

The Lake County Community Development Corporation is working with community food distributors to determine the amount of boxes needed in different areas and will deliver the food accordingly. Each site is unique with the number of families they are currently serving and therefore have requested varying amounts.

If the volume of boxes produced does drop after August, the organization plans to continue working with the food pantries and community food distributors to best meet each site’s needs.

Reporter Whitney England may be reached at 758-4419 or wengland@dailyinterlake.com