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Proposed bill would launch farm-to-pantry grant program in Montana

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A collection of rainbow chard. PHOTO BY KAREEN ERBE

By Austin Amestoy MONTANA PUBLIC RADIO

Food pantry operators have long said it’s a challenge to keep shelves stocked with fresh, nutritious produce. Now, a proposal in the Montana Legislature seeks to make that easier.

House Bill 276 would launch Montana’s first-ever “farm-to-food-bank” grant program. It would open up $1 million in funding over the next two years to regional food hubs and pantries across the state to help purchase fresh food from local producers.

The Montana Food Bank Network has been working on the proposal since early last year. Chief policy officer Lorianne Burhop says the grants would help food banks bring down the cost of buying locally, which can be more expensive than other sources of food.

“We’re supporting our farmers and ranchers, we’re increasing access to fresh, healthy food at our food pantry system that has become so invaluable during this difficult time in our state, and we’re supporting the health and well being of our Montana neighbors,” Burhop says. “It’s a win-win.”

Burhop says the idea for the program came partially as a way to address a spike in pantry demand that began last summer and hasn’t dropped. She says pantries statewide served 44,000 households in November of last year compared to 29,000 in November 2021.

The bill is modeled after similar programs in other states. Washington’s farm-to-food-pantry program is administered by nonprofit Harvest Against Hunger. Executive Director David Bobanick says growers in his state often donate produce on top of what pantries buy using state grant dollars.

“Really the magic of this program is that it allows local growers to make local organizations to make connections directly with the local growers,” Bobanick says.

Food hubs awarded a grant under the proposal in Montana would have to purchase goods with at least 51% of ingredients produced in-state. Preference would be shown to applicants that demonstrate an ability to reach underserved communities — especially those on tribal reservations.

Republican Rep. Marty Malone of Pray is sponsoring the bill, which has four other Republican lawmakers signed on as co-sponsors.

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