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Montana’s first statewide challenge aims to raise lifestyle awareness

BILLINGS, Mont. — To encourage the production and consumption of local foods, the Northern Plains Resource Council is hosting the first statewide Montana Local Food Challenge in July. NPRC is an organization dedicated to promoting clean air, clean water, family farms and the Montana quality of life.

“I look at my children and grandchildren and see how different their lives are from the way I grew up,” says Jean Lemire Dahlman, Northern Plains member and farm-ranch partner in Rosebud County. “Now you have working families where both partners work outside the home. That, coupled with the explosion of obesity, makes me think people have forgotten what real food tastes like.”

In 2016, the Localvore Index ranked Montana fourth in the nation for its local food production and consumption, moving up from seventh place on the strength of strong investment of USDA Know-Your-Farmer grant funding. The survey ranks all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, and has been produced annually for five years by Strolling of the Heifers, a nonprofit food advocacy organization, based in Vermont.

“We wanted to see if we could raise consciousness about what people are eating and purchasing, and how they might have a role to play,” Dahlman says. “[The challenge] not only supports local producers, but it will support the local economy.”

With a population just shy of one million people, Montana has 67 farmers’ markets and 39 consumer supported agricultures. Nearly half of the school districts in the state have farm-to-school programs.

“Montanans spend over $3 billion a year on food,” says Bruce Smith, Dawson County Extension agent, in a video for the Montana Ethic Project. “However, all of the agricultural production in the state, all of the vegetables, the grain and the livestock that we produce doesn’t add up to $3 billion. Of our food production in the 1950s, 70 percent of what Montanans ate came from in Montana. Right now it’s less than 10 percent. That is approximately $300 million; we are leaving $2.7 billion on the table.”

The NPRC campaign highlights the benefits of eating local, including access to fresher, more nutritious and better-tasting food. Shopping local also protects genetic diversity and regional food security, builds communities and local economies, and supports family farms and ranches.

“When we shop local, more dollars stay and circulate in our local community,” says Kate French, NPRC board chair, who reminds people that thinking holistically about economic choices includes purchases not just focused on food. “This means that more jobs are created and more tax revenue is generated for our towns and counties. The differences between local and non-local impacts are even more pronounced when we look at the economics of food.”

To take part, visit MTlocalfoodchallenge.org. The website allows you to track your progress through the course of the month, and gives resources, such as where to eat and grocery shop locally and where to buy local ingredients. Participants will be automatically entered into raffle giveaways.

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