One of the biggest things our food system has lost over the last fifty years is local processing. Food manufacturers dropped from 16 in 1959 to 9 in 2001 in Missoula County alone. Across the state, the same things have been seen - far fewer state- or USDA-certified meat processing facilities, vegetable and fruit processing facilities, and dairies.
So you prefer fresh fruits and veggies to canned ones anyway - what's the big deal? The problem is that these facilities created opportunities for producers to get their products to larger markets. You may not buy a lot of frozen squash, but the University of Montana can buy a LOT. That's a huge market opportunity.
Luckily, there are a lot of people in Montana who are interested in changing that. The Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center in Ronan provides a certified commercial kitchen that farms and food businesses can use to add value to their products and sell to new markets. By partnering with the Western Montana Growers Cooperative, the University of Montana, and schools and hospitals around the region, they're tapping new markets for regional products!
In a lot of ways, growing new processing facilities is a policy issue. Currently, food safety regulations are managed by the Department of Public Health and Human Services, while most other agriculture-related issues are managed by the Department of Agriculture. That creates challenges for producers in being able to easily identify obstacles and opportunities for opening new processing businesses.
In addition, at the local level, DPHHS' regulations are governed by the local County Sanitarian. This means that sometimes, a regulation is applied one way in one county and another way in another county. You can imagine that this makes it significantly more challenging for producers to understand the rules!
First, you can join our Food Systems Committee to help us create solutions at the local, state, and national level.
Second, you can advocate for better food policies at our local and state level. Contact DPHHS and the Department of Agriculture and let them know that growing our processing facilities is important to you and that you want a better solution. Sign up for our e-updates to find out about opportunities during the legislative session to advocate for bills that will help address this problem.