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Montana legislature considers farm to food bank program

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

Montana food security groups turned out in full force recently to support House Bill 274: Establish a farm to food bank grant program. Over twenty-five individuals testified in support of HB 274, with no opposition. Like all areas of the nation, Montana families face rising inflation and growing food insecurity. Representatives from food banks, healthcare, farms, and community groups consistently urged support for the proposal.

Proponents of farm to food bank programs describe these programs as a win-win-win for the communities they serve. Struggling families win with access to local food resources, small farmers win by finding another local market, and even the environment wins as a home is found for otherwise wasted goods.

Denying the potential benefits of HB 274 is impossible, especially when the need is great. Jamie Quinn of Flathead Foodbank shared that from 2021 to 2022 their local food bank saw a significant increase in customers.

· 43% increase in households using the foodbank.

· 27% increase in individuals using the foodbank.

· 123% increase in unsheltered individuals using the foodbank.

· 103% increase in working households using the foodbank.

· 60% increase in veterans using the foodbank.

· 32% increase in disabled individuals using the foodbank.

These demand increases were accompanied by a 29% decrease in donations and a 78.7% increase in food purchases by the foodbank. Quinn shared that when there is less on the shelf at the store. There is less to glean. Other food bank directors echoed similar struggles.

HB 274 would appropriate $1 million from the state general fund, as a one-time infusion of funds, available July 1, 2023, conditional upon passing the Montana legislature. Though altruistic, will the farm to food bank program be money well spent by the people of Montana?

Farm to food bank programs have grown in popularity over the last fifteen years. The programs allow local farmers to sell otherwise wasted produce to local food banks. By helping farmers cover the cost of picking, transporting, and processing the crop, farmers can proceed with harvesting the otherwise wasted commodity. Un-harvestable crops exist for farmers when market prices decrease, supply is overabundant, there is an on-farm surplus, or labor is unavailable or too costly to proceed with harvest. Farm to food bank programs step-in to help the farmer bring this valuable food to a needy population.

Though many farmers in Montana and nationally already donate to local food banks, the farm to food bank programs are created to increase the number of participants. Farm to food bank policies mostly operate under the assumption that direct payments to farmers are critical to success, even if payments only cover pick and pack out (PPO) costs to get the product to the food bank. Some programs will even pay farmers near-market-rates, like in Arizona. Tax incentives are also used in at least ten states, off-setting costs of harvest for farmers and incentivizing donations.

Federal funds have already been dispersed to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to work with the Montana Food Bank Network in 2022. The goal was to establish a grower network to donate surplus product and livestock. The $31,687 in funds were to be used to cover the costs of creating processing systems for livestock, produce, and fresh milk. The grant amount is nowhere close to covering even one of these supply chains. Montana was not issued funds from the federal government for this program in 2023.

House Agriculture Committee member, Representative Knudsen, asked the proponents of the bill how far the $1 million would go. Katie Adams of Teton County Food Bank shared that in their community of 1,700 people the food bank issues a fresh fruit and vegetable coupon that can be used at the local grocery story. Last year, the Teton County Food Bank served 120 families and reimbursed the local grocery store $2,500 for fresh fruit and vegetables and $1,900 for milk. They also had a $7,000 increase in food purchases to supply the food bank.

Looking at these numbers and what it would mean for the entire state of Montana, MSPC used the number shared by Lorianne Burhop, Director of Montana FoodBank Network, that 38,000 Montana families are served by a food bank every month. Overall purchases by foodbanks have probably increased by about $2.2 million over the last year, if the statewide increase was the same as Teton County. If a similar coupon approach was used, fresh fruit and veggies would cost $791,667 and dairy would cost $601,667 to serve the 38,000 families using the foodbank network (the farm to food bank would not use coupons but this calculation helps give context to the numbers).

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