Grow Montana’s 2013 Legislative Priorities

In the 2013 legislature, Grow Montana promoted sensible and sustainable food policy, serving as the driving force behind bills to jump-start Farm to School efforts in the state and support Montana’s network of Food and Agricultural Development Centers. We also worked alongside our allies to streamline food safety regulations, open markets for local producers, and preserve Montana’s agricultural lands. Here are some of the highlights:

Promoting Farm to School programs (HB 471):

Programs that bring local foods into schools are good for children, good for the economy, and good for the environment. They improve nutrition in our schools and help keep money and jobs in the state. However, with an average of only $1.00 to spend per child per meal on food, many school food service directors find it difficult to afford the slightly higher cost of local products.

In the 2013 legislative session, Grow Montana spearheaded HB 471, the Farm to School Bill, to help public schools buy Montana-made foods for their lunches. We heard heartfelt testimony from farmers, ranchers, students, processors, school board members, non-profits, officials, legislators, and food service directors about how Farm to School programs improve student nutrition while boosting the local economy. The bill’s sponsor (Greg Hertz, R-Ronan) even brought local chicken and carrots onto the House floor! The Farm to School Bill made it through its first House vote with a bipartisan supermajority in support, but was ultimately defeated in the appropriations process. Despite this, the momentum behind Farm to School is now stronger than ever: our work helped to create a broad coalition around Farm to School, to educate lawmakers, and to lay a strong foundation for success in 2015.

Supporting Montana’s Food and Agriculture Development Centers (HB 420):

Montana’s four Food and Agricultural Development Centers are a vital resource for food and farming entrepreneurs, offering business counseling, education, product testing, research, and more. In 2012 alone, the Centers, located in Polson, Havre, Joliet, and Butte, helped their clients introduce 47 new products, start or expand 33 businesses, and create 41.5 new jobs!

Despite their value, funding for the centers was cut back during the 2011 legislative session, and faced the possibility of further cuts in 2013. To fund and expand the work of the Centers, Grow Montana helped lead the efforts on HB 420, which Representative Joanne Blyton claimed was “the best job bill all session—and the tastiest one too!” (R-Joliet). Although the original bill (HB 420) died in the legislative process, the testimony and track record in favor of the Centers was so powerful that the legislature amended another bill, HB-2, to include $600,000 for the Food and Agricultural Development Centers over the next two years (an increase of $210,000 from the previous biennium).

Grow Montana also works with a broad range of allies that are working on growing a more robust and vibrant local food system in Montana. Some of the efforts that we helped support during the 2013 session were:

Defending protections for agricultural land:

Past legislatures had the wisdom to give local governments the legal tools necessary to protect the agricultural land base of their communities. SB 147 aimed to weaken those protections by taking away communities’ rights to consider the impacts on agricultural land when reviewing proposed subdivision developments. Grow Montana supported the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, Montana Farmers Union, and other allies in standing up for ag land, eventually garnering a veto from Governor Bullock. As the Governor’s veto letter rightly explained, “Agriculture is a vital part of Montana’s economy and culture. When evaluating a proposed development, a local community must be able to consider both short and long term agricultural impacts.”

Streamlining Montana’s food safety regulations:

Grow Montana worked on numerous bills this session that addressed Montana’s current patchwork of confusing and complicated food safety rules. One of the most exciting and forward thinking of these was HB 630, sponsored by Kathleen Williams (D-Bozeman), which passed the legislature this spring. The bill established the Montana Food Safety Modernization Project. Headed by the Montana Department of Agriculture, this initiative will bring state agencies, sanitarians, producers, consumers, and others together during the legislative interim to streamline and craft food safety regulations that protect the public’s health but that also allow producers to access new markets and local businesses to thrive. Grow Montana enthusiastically looks forward to coming to this table, and will continue looking for ways to make food safety policies work for all Montanans.”

With the legislative session over, our strategy now, as the Grow Montana coalition and allies, is to build on all the support that this legislative session garnered, and dig right in to the research, communications, and coalition building for 2015. To all of you who donated, wrote letters, called, or testified during the session, thank you! We know you’ll keep doing what you do to support community-based food systems, and we’ll keep working alongside you to help make sure that our state’s policies align with your vision.