On Friday, Montana Governor Schweitzer signed Senate Bill (SB) 328, a bill that passed through the senate and house with almost unanimous support despite a legislative session that was more contentious than cordial. The idea that brought so many disagreeing legislators together was support of Montana’s farmers and ranchers by providing more Montana-grown food in large, institutional settings.
SB 328 allows public institutions such as Universities and hospitals more flexibility to buy Montana-produced food. It does this by providing an optional exemption in the Montana Procurement Act. Introduced by Senator Donald J. Steinbeisser and supported by Senator Carol Williams, the law allows institutions to buy Montana grown food within certain parameters, even if it costs more than the cheaper, national product. The exemption is used only when consistent with an agency’s fiscal goals and constraints.
In formulating the bill, Senators Steinbeisser and Williams worried that there would be retribution from other states accustomed to selling their goods in Montana. So they formed a coalition that worked to write strong language that would address any procurement issues. This coalition included Grow Montana, an organization that successfully supported other similar bills this session.
In part, the coalition wanted to change the old procurement law because it required public institutions to buy the cheapest food available. These procurement policies prohibited institutions such as the University of Montana’s Farm to College program from buying some Montana grown products because it was more expensive than products from out of state sources. Such a policy also ensured that the bulk of money spent on food in Montana was leaving Montana.
In 2003, Montanans spent over $3 billion on food, but only $225 million stayed in the state. The rest of the money flew out into other states and countries. SB 328 ensures that institutions, which are some of the largest food purchasers, can spend more of their annual budgets on Montana grown food products. As Crissie McMullan, Project Coordinator for Grow Montana says, “Our schools, colleges and prisons represent a $33 million market virtually untapped by Montana’s farmers and ranchers.”
For the University of Montana, the bill is a boon to their successful Farm to College program. From 2005 to 2006, the program bought more than $500,000 of food from Montana producers. Remarkably, the percentage of the University’s overall food costs actually decreased during that time. The program currently buys food products from forty Montana vendors. For Marc LoParco of the University’s Dining Services, these numbers are a good start. But they are just a start. LoParco, who wore a festive tie with colorful fruits, remarked that SB 328 will really enable the Farm to College program to increase their Montana food purchases to an estimated twenty percent of their total food purchasing budget.
McMullan, who helped to develop UM’s Farm to College, agrees that the University of Montana program is just the beginning. “If one college prioritizes Montana-grown food, it’s intriguing. If five colleges, ten schools, and ten prisons buy Montana-grown food, it’s a movement.”
The emerging possibilities and connections of such a movement also excite the Governor who repeatedly asked the gathered crowd, “Who’s your Farmer?” “Who’s your Farmer?” He remarked that it is less important to worry about whether something is organic or natural, and more important to know your farmer in order to know what you’re getting.
While he focused on the ideals of community and particularly on the role of co-ops in the state as farmers come together to sell their goods, other farmers and policy makers asked deeper questions about the role of government support for stronger local food systems, particularly the processing facilities that are sorely needed in order to re-localize Montana’s food system. When specifically asked if he would continue to support innovative ways of re-localizing the food system and work with state agencies to do so, the Governor responded that he would.
But for the moment, people celebrated the passage of the bill by eating a Montana grown burger covered with Lifeline cheese, dribbled with Flathead cherry BBQ sauce on a Wheat Montana bun, and served with a huckleberry milkshake in a martini glass. As the Governor signed the bill, he too was served a burger, but his Montana grown beef came in the shape of the state of Montana – the shape of things to come.
Senate Bill (SB) 328,– Excerpt:
Montana-produced food products may be procured by direct purchase when:
(i) the quality of available Montana-produced food products is substantially equivalent to the quality of similar food products produced outside the state;
(ii) a vendor is able to supply Montana-produced food products in sufficient quantity; and
(iii) a bid for Montana-produced food products either does not exceed or reasonably exceeds the lowest bid or price quoted for similar food products produced outside the state. A bid reasonably exceeds the lowest bid or price quoted when, in the discretion of the person charged by law with the duty to purchase food products for a governmental body, the higher bid is reasonable and capable of being paid out of that governmental body’s existing budget without any further supplemental or additional appropriation.
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