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Food for thought

Food academics sample local culture

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RONAN — Hundreds of food anthropologists and food and nutrition academics from all over the country and the world gathered in Arlee and Ronan last weekend to tour the Western Montana Growers Co-Op and the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center. The tours were part of a “Food and Agriculture Under the Big Sky” conference held at the University of Montana.

The conference, held for the first time in Montana, was hosted by three organizations: the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society (AFHVS), the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS), and the Society for Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (SAFN). The SAFN was organized in 1974 in response to increased interest in the connection between social sciences and human nutrition.

“Montana is not on the national radar,” Alison Harmon, conference co-chair and assistant professor in food and nutrition at Montana State University, said. “These conferences are usually held out east, so this is a good chance to share research and network.”

The ASFS was founded in 1985 to promote the study of food and society. They have held meetings every year since 1987, and since 1992, have held meetings jointly with the AFHVS. This year the two organizations have incorporated their meeting to include the Society for Anthropology of Food and Nutrition.

“I’m surprised by the local food movement,” Douglas H. Constance, professor of rural sociology at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, said.

Twenty years ago, Constance drove through Montana but this is the first time he got a tour of some of the state’s food infrastructure. He was impressed by the efforts of businesses in Arlee and Ronan, and the University of Montana’s Farm-to-College program - dedicated to buying food locally to feed students.

“It is very progressive and laudable,” Constance said. “It also honors multi-culturalism because there is no one best way.”

In addition to touring the facilities, conference participants sampled several products, most which are made at the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center. 

The group ate lentil burgers in seven different flavors, provided through joint effort of Mission Mountain and Timeless Seeds in Ulm, Mont. Conference goers also dined on Silent Creations Buffalo Jerky, Thunderhead Raspberry Chipotle Sauce, Kalispell Kreamery and Montana Coffee Traders products and salad from the Western Montana Growers Co-Op - all of which are locally grown or produced.

Karl Sutton, program coordinator at Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center, said they are trying to incorporate the lentil burgers in their Farm-to-School program. They already provide cherries, apples and beef for several local schools. 

“Research says that if kids know where their food is coming from they are more likely to eat it,” Sutton said. Mission Mountain Food Enterprises recently acquired a machine that will peel and cut squash. With the new machine, they are hoping to provide local squash to schools as well. 

“How much is it going to cost?” is the question Sutton said schools most often struggle with because they work on a set budget from the government. In turn, this is one of Mission Mountain Food Enterprise’s challenges - trying to provide locally grown food at a reasonable price, while still making a profit to remain in business. 

According to Jan Tusick, program director of Mission Mountain Food Enterprises, this is the first year the organization has made a profit, even though they are a non-profit business. 

“If we are not sustainable, the amount of work we have done will dry up and blow away,” Tusick said during the lunch. “And that would be sad.”

“Making a profit in a non-profit means that we held our own,” Billie Lee, executive director of Mission Mountain, said. Lee said each year since their existence they have had to operate in the red, meaning they have had to borrow funds from banks in order to keep the facility open. 

“This year we have been able to contribute back instead of taking away from the facility,” Lee said. She added that profits were used to make some maintenance repairs to Mission Mountain.

“It is quite impressive,” Niels Kristensen, professor of food policy and network at the University of Denmark in Aalborg, said of the Mission Valley. “From a European perspective, I like that the connection to the local culture is important; often these are disconnected.” 

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