Missoula, Montana – 1996. The anchor institution for this small western city is the University of Montana, well known, among its other academic departments, for its forestry and sustainability programs in a region that had been known for agriculture. As the century’s end neared, the story of American food production was one of a declining number of farms, the survivors of which were growing ever larger by producing commodity crops for global markets. That trend left regions of the country like the one Missoula inhabited disappearing in agriculture’s rearview mirror. After all, who needs to grow food for their own region when the glittering lights of Big Food beckon and gleaming, one-size-fits-all supermarkets provide for everyone’s needs?
As it turns out, there was a parallel food narrative strongly suggesting that not everyone’s food needs were being met. A decade’s worth of cuts in the nation’s safety net programs accompanied by the falling value of wages relative to the cost of living—the early signs of income inequality—revealed themselves in USDA’s first survey releases of food insecurity among U.S. households. Depending on a number of factors and the particular year, anywhere from one in ten to one in six Americans faced food insecurity. This led to another disquieting trend, namely the growth in food pantries and food banks that grew in size and number in response to the increased demand for free food. This unfolding crisis, a foreshadowing of crises to come including the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, pushed thousands of communities back on their heels as they scavenged for local solutions.
“I was working at the Missoula Food Bank at that time,” said Bonnie Buckingham, long-time area resident and now the director of the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, “when Josh Slotnick walked in with an idea. He wanted to grow food on some vacant land for the food bank.” In 1996, with two acres of donated land, Josh, a young but landless farmer, and a number of volunteers, students, and the university, started what would come to be known as the PEAS Farm. Even twenty-five years later, Bonnie remembers how excited she was when “2,000 pounds of amazing sustainably grown produce” showed up in the food bank’s warehouse that season.
But PEAS Farm wasn’t just a “one-off” attempt to close the local food gap. It was the beginning of what soon became the non-profit organization, Garden City Harvest (GCH) that got its financial start with a $50,000 grant from the brand new, USDA Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program. Better known as “CFP,” the federal program’s thirteen original 1996 grant recipients included GCH, and since that grant coincided with the organization’s founding, both GCH and CFP are celebrating their 25th anniversaries in 2021. **
“GCH is now an essential part of Missoula,” Bonnie told me. This is a statement that precisely reflects the intention of CFP, which is now administered by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), formerly the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES). Based on the program’s own grant application language, applicants will be required to demonstrate that their projects “increase the self-reliance of communities in providing for their own food needs…plan for long-term solutions…create innovative marketing activities that mutually benefit agricultural producers and low-income consumers.” There is no better evidence of what these achievements look like today than in GCH’s current line-up of activities: four neighborhood farms and 11 community garden sites that serve nearly 400 gardeners; 290 community supported agriculture shares; a robust farm to school and school garden program that serves thousands of school-age children every year. Not only is their food production output envious—over one-quarter-of-a-million pounds are grown and distributed annually—they touch the lives of nearly everybody in Missoula. Reviewing those 25 years, Bonnie said “Not only was GHC visionary and innovative, it has raised the potential for western Montana to feed itself.”
The Community Food Project Competitive Grant Program grew out of efforts by the Community Food Security Coalition, which itself was inspired by the principles of community food security. Recognizing that the success of local efforts to end hunger, reduce obesity, and promote sustainable food and farming economies was dependent on a food systems approach—acknowledging the relationship between all the parts of a food system, from seed to table (and now waste, the environment, and health)—CFSC felt that one way to advance community food security was through a dedicated federal grant program.
As an emerging food and farm coalition, CFSC and its members launched a number of initiatives in the mid- to late-1990s to support the work of grass-roots people and organizations that were committed to more holistic and justice-oriented approaches. But without the recognition and resources that federal policy provides, the ability to catalyze a community-based food movement would be a slow, hard slog. With the assistance of numerous supporters, both at the local level and on Capitol Hill, CFSC and its allies advocated for inclusion of a community-oriented federal grant program that would empower local food system stakeholders to choose their own path to food security and sustainability. Key among its Congressional supporters were Julie Paradis, ranking staff member of the House Agriculture Committee, and Representatives Bill Emerson of Missouri and Eligio “Kika” de la Garza of Texas.
Looking back on that period in the mid-1990s, it’s important to note how unique and innovative the CFP concept was compared to other very large federal food programs like food stamps and commodity support programs for agriculture. De la Garza said it best when introducing the bill that would later become the Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program: “The concept of community food security is a comprehensive strategy for feeding hungry people, one that incorporates the participation of the community and encourages a greater role for the entire food system…There is a need to develop innovative approaches…that foster local solutions and that deliver multiple benefits to communities.”
With its emphasis on community participation and decision making—what today goes by such terms as “food democracy” and “food sovereignty—CFP not only set the stage for a host of other locally focused food programs, like FINI/GusNIP and the FMLFPP, but gave communities an alternative to bureaucratic-heavy, top-down, and charity-driven hunger mitigation strategies. It has paved the way through nearly 650 grants totaling more than $100 million to all U.S. states and territories, for a deeper dive into the underlying causes of our Nation’s food problems. In turn, CFP unleashed a panoply of creative organizational and individual responses to America’s food security and sustainability challenges.
Josh Slotnick moved on from farming and GCH about three years ago to eventually become a Missoula county commissioner. In his 22 years at GCH, he expanded the PEAS Farm from two to 10 acres and helped to grow the organization overall. Jean Zosel was hired as GCH’s executive director ten years ago. According to Jean, GCH now has 21 sites totaling more than 20 acres throughout the community, including four acres that they purchased and that serve as GHC’s hub. There’s an office, a community barn and kitchen, an apartment for the farm’s caretaker, and an orchard in addition to other farming and gardening areas.
Over the course of expanding and diversifying their activities over the past decades, Jean makes it clear that they stayed true to their mission, one that she fully credits Josh for embedding in the community. “Addressing food insecurity is in our DNA,” she said, noting among other facts that 70 percent of their community gardeners are low to moderate income and that a substantial amount of their community farm production (20,000 lbs. of produce a year) still goes to the food bank. But over the past 15 months, GCH proved its meddle by providing a readily accessible and affordable source of local food during the pandemic. “Boy, oh boy! Growing food was a big deal last year,” she exclaimed, telling me that all their CSA shares sold out for the first time ever and their community garden sites generated long waiting lists.
Not to downplay the impact of the pandemic or the role that GCH played in stepping up to the plate, Jean says, “we were created (1996) in response to a crisis, so our response to the pandemic was just part of our job. After all, there are always people in our community living in crisis.” But both Jean and Bonnie reserve their greatest enthusiasm for what might be considered the least quantifiable or tangible influences of GCH. “We have literally grown thousands of environmental stewards,” Jean said, referring to about 1,200 University of Montana Environmental Studies students who have cycled through GCH over the past 25 years, as well as the 6,500 public school kids who regularly experience the farm and farm-to-school programs each year.
The community connections are infinite, and that so many of them can be attributed to food, Missoula’s two farmers’ markets, and GCH are undeniable. They are as unique and individual to Missoula as they are common to communities across the country. One small example that Jean cites concerns GCH’s youth-run, mobile market that sells their low-cost, sustainably grown produce to Missoula’s senior citizens. “These are young people who usually occupy Missoula’s margins,” she told me. “They are socially isolated but seem to connect with seniors who are also socially isolated. One of our young women told me, ‘I’ve got purple hair, and let’s face it, this is not normal. But the seniors think I’m wonderful!’”
Twenty-five years of tons of locally grown food, thousands of young people launched like bees across the community and countryside to pollinate sustainable agriculture and community food security projects elsewhere, and uncountable personal interactions that have enriched people’s lives in unimaginable ways are just some of the legacies of Garden City Harvest and Community Food Projects.
* With this post, I’m beginning a series of stories that celebrate 25 years of the Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program (CFP). It is my hope that each one (I’m still clueless as to how many there will be) will weave together portions of the grant program’s history with tales of how specific communities and projects have bent CFP funds to their needs. My larger purpose is not only to illustrate what a “micro” federal program like CFP can achieve, but to share lessons learned by communities and Washington, D.C. policy makers alike. Fueled as much by that desire as I am by a pent-up pandemic energy that threatens to ignite another nuclear bomb over New Mexico, I will be driving to the Northeast in August by a yet-unknown route to, among other things, pay site visits to a few select CFP-funded projects. Know of any you’d like to see featured? Just send me a note. And stay tuned as I report back “on the road.”
** Full disclosure: In early 1996, I had provided some training and technical assistance to groups in Missoula who were organizing around a number of food ideas including the one that became Garden City Harvest. I advised them to submit a CFP grant application, which they did. A few months later, while serving on the first CFP grant review committee, I discovered there was no grant application from Missoula. I called them and was told they had indeed submitted the application and had a signed FEDEX receipt in their possession. After I inquired of USDA staff about the application, they searched their office and, lo and behold, found it under a stack of boxes. Subsequently, it was reviewed by the panel and chosen as one of the first 13 grantees.