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MMFEC boxes locally grown produce for people in need

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RONAN – This summer, families that don’t have the resources to purchase fresh produce will be able to access weekly boxes of food, grown in the region, through food banks and other community support organizations.

Here’s how it works: farmers harvest food in fields across western Montana, and then, they sell it to Western Montana Growers Cooperative, which picks up the produce from farmers and delivers it to Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center in Ronan. Employees at MMFEC divvy up the produce and pack it into boxes for individual families. Local organizations use their networks to distribute the food to those in need. 

MMFEC director Jan Tusick said the benefits of the program are two-fold. Farmers will have a place to sell their produce, despite the decline in demand from restaurants due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and people are able to get fresh food that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. Historic unemployment rates related to the pandemic mean more families are struggling financially and might go without the healthy food they need unless they receive assistance. 

Funding for the program comes from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Family Food Box Program, Headwaters Foundation and the 

Montana Farmers Union. The USDA program, which awarded WMGC a grant to pursue the project, will allow the network to distribute 571 boxes per week through the end of August, and after that, other funding sources will allow the program to distribute 180 boxes each week through the end of November.

Dave Prather, general manager of WMGC, said farmers are glad to have a way to sell produce they haven’t been able to sell through pre-pandemic avenues. “Many growers have lost markets due to restaurants and farmers markets being slow, so it was an opportunity to sell produce that might have gone to waste otherwise,” Prather said. 

According to Prather, the market for local food has changed significantly since the pandemic began. Items for household consumption, like eggs, have been in demand; however, produce has not been used because people are eating out less than they normally do. 

The program has been going on for two weeks. Tusick said the reaction from those who receive the food has been positive. Food banks and other donation-based support services often distribute non-perishable items to those in need, but fresh, local produce is uncommon. 

“They were so thankful because they’re getting fresh vegetables they can’t typically afford to buy,” Tusick said. “We really feel that it’s having the impact that we forecast.” 

The food boxes are being distributed locally to regular clients at three locations: the Arlee Community Development Corporation food bank, by the Flathead Reservation Community Action group; the Polson and Ronan food banks; and Salish Kootenai College. It’s also being distributed more broadly to the Flathead Valley and Missoula regions. Those who are in need of food should contact their local food bank or community support organizations.  


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