MISSOULA - A grant sought by the Missoula Food Policy Advisory Board could help explore and plan the creation of a local meat processing facility — an effort that advocates believe would remove the value-added cost of meat and keep locally produced food in the community.
Members also are working with the city and county to find ways to protect small agricultural land in the valley, and to stock more shelves and restaurants with local commodities.
“Some of the specific policy areas we'd like to focus on in the next year is that farmland protection, committing the city and county to the importance of local food for our community, and strengthening access to and support of local food,” Erika Berglund, the advisory board's chairperson, said Tuesday.
Since its formation last year, members of the board have worked to build recommendations and are looking for ways to get them before local officials and members of the Legislature.
The group has grown more organized, creating three subcommittees on land use, economic development, and food access, health and nutrition.
“Those are the three buckets of policy we've identified as a board as our main focus,” said Berglund. “We've made several comments on land-use policy changes over the past year, and we helped submit the local Food Promotion Program grant proposal through the county.”
Berglund said the board has identified the creation of a meat processing facility as a high priority for the region, saying it's one of the obvious gaps in local food production.
If awarded, the grant would fund the cost of hiring an expert to make recommendations on what sort of processing facility would work best, and what capacity is ideal. The grant is specific to expanding regional food systems.
“At the heart of this problem, in Missoula County, we raise a whole bunch of cows and calves, and we send the calves off to feed lots in other parts of the state and Midwest, then we import beef,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “When we import beef, we are paying for all the value that's been added for the feeding, caring and transportation to get the calf to the size of a beef. We could hold on to a lot of that money and cut down on costs.”
Slotnick, who spearheaded the creation of the Food Policy Advisory Board, said any number of facilities could be explored, from artisan-sized processing to something larger. The outcome of the grant would provide recommendations but funding the creation of a facility would be a hurdle needing crossed down the road.
“It's difficult because capitalizing such a thing is a fantastically large task,” Slotnick said. “Trying to figure a path to where we need to get to is a large puzzle. The essence of this grant is to hire someone with this expertise to find any number of solutions. This (grant) takes the next step.”
Missoula County recently adopted its new zoning codes, and the Food Policy Advisory Board weighed in on the process by submitting recommendations. It plans to do the same as the city moves forward in reforming its own zoning codes.
Jenny Zaso, a board member representing the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, said the group hopes to become more active in helping the city and county conserve small agriculture parcels.
“We're also watching and communicating what's happening at the state Legislature,” Zaso said. “We had bills come through the last session that impact zoning and conservation easements and things like that. We're constantly looking, as a land-use subcommittee, at how it affects Missoula County and our ability to protect ag lands.”
Gov. Greg Gianforte this year created a Housing Task Force to explore ways to boost Montana's supply of housing. The task force will also look at regulatory barriers that hinder development.
While the recommendations could help address Missoula's housing shortage and the cost of building, some fear it may hinder conservation, the ability to create new easements and protect agricultural soils.
“We haven't unlocked the best way to move forward as a board to work with our elected officials on how we can implement at the state Legislature,” said Zaso. “The Housing Task Force is looking at all parts of the law that would impede development. We're trying to understand what the outcomes of that may be.”