POLSON, Mont. - An online farmers' market is helping bring rural communities closer to their food sources while promoting local food sustainability. From cheese to beets, consumers can custom pick products from a list of 80 local producers.

"There are a lot of different value," says Jason Moore, president of the Montana Co-op. "Some people value the benefit of food security, some value the benefits of health and that's where the market is really unique and different."

After holding a wellness retreat in 2010, Moore wanted to find a way to connect and support his clients through healthy eating. Two years later, a $2,000 grant by the Horton Family Foundation helped start the cooperative. The goal is to commit to positive change by creating healthier food products statewide, help people understand sustainable local agriculture and encouraging relationships between local producers and consumers is at the soul of the cooperative, says Moore.

Local food and products are sold online and distributed throughout Montana using Food Hubs. The selling and buying occurs weekly, with consumers placing orders on Monday and producers harvesting and delivering products to the local food hub the following Thursday. A $20 fee ensures a lifetime membership.

"We went to see these food hubs getting involved in building community and not just the handling and production of food," Moore says. "The community-focused food hub focuses on the needs and values of the community."

The Montana Co-op facilitates food hubs, a space where local consumers can pick up their food year round. By building community and expanding food-related services for local people, each food hub provides a variety of services that benefit their community needs and values. Currently there are 16 food hubs in Montana and the cooperative plans to open one in each community with its primary focus on rural towns with limited access to food. The Montana Co-op has also initiated a Kids' Co-op that brings teenagers together to learn healthy eating and nutrition habits. A food sovereignty program is also in the works, where the co-op hopes to establish food hubs in tribal communities.

"[The co-op] is part of our way to help people get well," says co-op member Barbara Lennard. "A majority of what is wrong with people is what we eat. We try to bring about good food at a decent price and help them to learn how to prepare and eat it."

According to the Center for Cooperatives at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, cooperatives operate on the principle of "one member, one vote" and is owned by members, so control is allocated evenly among the users of the co-op. Operating for the benefit of members, benefits are distributed in proportion to each member's transactions. All cooperatives adhere to a set of core principles: voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, members' economic participation, autonomy and independence, cooperation among cooperatives, concern for community and education, training and information.

In an effort to promote local food sustainability, the U.S. Department of Agriculture grants funding for rural development to local cooperatives and food hubs. A 2016 report by USDA show the cooperative model supports food hub aggregation and product sales from small and mid-sized growers, establishing a higher level of trust and helping to retain profits locally. These co-ops help create and sustain small farms across the country.

Orders for the Montana Co-op can be placed atMontanaCoop.com or by calling 406-285-1149.