The Magazine of The University of Montana
UM Grad Crissie McMullan Sheds Light on Impact, Importance of Local Food
By Erika Fredrickson Photos by Todd Goodrich
Crissie McMullan co-founded FoodCorps, a program that helps schools provide students with local food, such as these pinto beans from the Yellowstone Bean Company in East Bridger, which are stored at the Missoula County Public Schools Central Kitchen.
In the mid-1980s, however, when McMullan was still a young child, his dairy operation went out of business.
“I totally thought it was an isolated incident,” McMullan says. “I thought we were the only ones who were going through this. I thought my dad had failed.”
As it turned out, McMullan’s family was one of many farm families across the nation finding it difficult to stay afloat against an aggressive tide of cutthroat agri-giants and low-ball market prices. Farm operations were folding and consolidating. No longer his own boss, her father signed on to work for a large-scale chicken processing company. When that company pared down its labor, he was forced to find work at yet another processing company. And then another. He found himself in a vicious cycle of being last to be hired, first to be fired. In the subsequent years, McMullan’s family moved so many times that by ninth grade she’d attended seven different schools. Farming left a bitter taste.
“I was not interested in agriculture at all,” McMullan says. “I saw it as a smelly industry where you lose a lot of money. It made no sense to me.”
That was then.
Just a couple decades later at age thirty-five, the UM graduate has become one of the most powerful driving forces in Montana’s food and agriculture movement. In 2003, she co-founded UM’s Farm to College Program, which helps University Dining Services dish up local ingredients to students. She’s shepherded important farm bills into state law, and a few years ago she launched a public service program that fosters major food projects in Montana and throughout the nation.
McMullan’s roundabout journey from reluctant small-town Mississippi farm girl to a leader in Montana food policy is as much about personal transformation as it is about agricultural revolution.
“People want to connect with where their food comes from,” McMullan says. “We have a global food system. We’ve gotten used to that, and I think most of us have forgotten that it doesn’t have to be this way.”
McMullan, center, and others listen to a presentation by Missoula FoodCorps service member Peter Kerns, right, at the MCPS Central Kitchen.
McMullan attended Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., as an undergraduate student. During summers she worked as a camp counselor in Maine, where she met people who called themselves “environmentalists.”
“It never occurred to me that you could be such a thing,” she says. “But I got really into it. I wanted to be an environmentalist, too.”
To that end, she volunteered one summer for the Sierra Club on a campaign to stop concentrated animal feeding operations [CAFOs] from coming into Mississippi and polluting the environment. The CAFOs she fought weren’t that much different from her father’s industry. Her sister, who raised chickens for the mega-company Tyson, also was embedded in industrial agriculture. Nonetheless, her family was supportive, McMullan says.
“They were kind of bewildered by what I was doing,” she says. “But generally like, ‘Okay, go for it.’ My sister, not long after she started working for Tyson, began feeling like she was kind of getting screwed, actually. Over time, Tyson started requiring more and more upgrades, and [she] ended up taking on all the risk while they took the profit. So once she started experiencing that, she had no love lost for this system either really, even though she was kind of torn.”
In 2002, McMullan started graduate work in UM’s Environmental Studies Program.
“I came to UM as a way to live in Montana and be an environmentalist,” McMullan says. “I thought I was going to do something with traditional conservation work.”
Farmland and livestock were far from her thoughts.
During her coursework, however, McMullan took a food and agriculture class taught by Professor Neva Hassanein, a longtime local food advocate. Hassanein lectured to her students about the complex politics and environmental issues surrounding agriculture. McMullan also took a course working at Missoula’s Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society [PEAS] Farm, where she discovered practical yet innovative farming skills. She started realizing that farming does have a connection to environmental issues. It got her thinking about her family back in Mississippi, and she wondered: Was it possible to have an agricultural system that was both environmentally friendly and economically viable for farmers like her dad and sister?
“I started getting interested in food issues,” she says. “My family would never call themselves environmentalists, but they were realizing that their kind of [industrial] farming wasn’t working for them financially. So I really liked investigating that intersection—looking at ways of creating a food system that does work for farmers and the environment, learning that those two things do go together and should go together.”
In 1950, 70 percent of the food consumed by Montanans was grown in-state. Today, more than 90 percent of the state’s food comes from outside Montana. Food processing—the state’s top employer until 1940—has died out over the past several decades, forcing farmers to send their cows and other unprocessed products outside state boundaries. The states that do process meat reap the benefits of value-added food, while Montana ranchers don’t. Furthermore, low fuel prices and a global transportation system make it cheaper for Montanans to import their food from elsewhere. In a state full of cattle, Montanans are eating beef shipped all the way from Argentina.
“We’re a commodity state, and so our expertise is in commodity production,” McMullan says. “And that’s fine—except we don’t eat two-year-old feeder cows, and we don’t eat wheat berries. We eat hamburgers on hamburger buns. And making that connection between those is challenging.”
In her second semester at UM, McMullan learned firsthand how gutted the Montana food system had become when she took another class from Hassanein called Environmental Organizing, which required students to find a project on campus. Hassanein had been talking with University Dining Services Director Mark LoParco.
“Mark and I were on a recycling committee together, and we got to chatting about getting more local food into the dining hall,” Hassanein says. “He was really interested in that, but he didn’t have the labor to do it.”
Hassanein encouraged McMullan and three other students interested in food issues to work with dining services as their class project. They drew up a pitch to sell the idea to LoParco and his staff. Their original goal was for UM to purchase 100 percent of its food from local and sustainable sources by the end of the semester.
“We met with dining services staff, and we divvied up what we were going to talk about,” says McMullan. “We wanted to talk about why local food is good for the environment, and why it’s important for our economy. We got to the meeting, and Mark LoParco said, ‘Yeah, yeah. I know all of this. What I need to know is how we do it.’”
Most school-food institutions use an efficient, standardized ordering system. Trying to coordinate buying food from several farmers across the state wouldn’t be easy. When McMullan and her peers realized how complicated it would be to reach their 100 percent local goal, they decided to simplify the project. They would start with making one meal sourced from local ingredients.
“It still took all four of us putting our hearts and souls into this project,” McMullan says. “Even for one meal you have to make sure it fits the food safety laws, and you have to make sure it’s relatively affordable, and you have to make sure that producers have the food and can deliver it.”
The final project was called Montana Morning—a brunch of omelets and breakfast burritos made with Montana ingredients cooked in local safflower oil, plus locally roasted coffee and Montana herbal tea. Then-President George Dennison attended the brunch with several farmers and agriculture speakers. So many people came that the dining hall ran out of food and had to go buy more ingredients.
“It was just a huge success,” recalls Hassanein. “It galvanized dining services.”
McMullan and another student, Shelly Connor, decided to help push that success further by focusing their final graduate work on institutionalizing the Farm to College Program. The following year they buried themselves in the logistics of University Dining Services, reached out to farmers and ranchers, and pushed inch by inch, ingredient by ingredient, to build the program.
At its inception in 2003, UM’s Farm to College Program was one of only about ten in the nation. During the following years, foodie culture and agricultural politics exploded, making “local food” a mainstream term.
After graduating, McMullan worked as the only full-time paid staff member for Grow Montana, a broad-based coalition working to impact food policy. She worked on several bills that made it through the state Legislature. One of the bills McMullan worked on allowed institutions to prioritize local food—even if it wasn’t the cheapest—which opened Montana’s $33 million institutional food market to local farmers and ranchers. Another bill successfully urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture to remove a federal ban that prohibited the sale of Montana-inspected meat across borders, making it easier for producers to compete in national markets. And she helped pass a bill that legalized mobile slaughter units so local farmers could harvest animals on-farm and sell the meat in any Montana retail, restaurant, or direct market.
Meanwhile, McMullan found her knowledge of farm-to-table organizing in high demand. She received calls from parents affiliated with Missoula County Public Schools, a professor at Montana State University, an extension agent in the Flathead, and many others, all looking for someone to help them bring local food to cafeterias or to help them with other local food projects such as school gardens. From experience, McMullan knew it would take a lot of work to satiate these needs, and she didn’t have the time or resources to spare.
But there was some money available. A major donor from Washington interested in spreading efforts similar to UM’s Farm to College Program contacted Hassanein. In a meeting to talk about how they might make it happen, McMullan suggested an AmeriCorps-style take on food projects. Young people interested in food issues would be placed in communities across the state to work on food projects in exchange for a stipend and an education award.
“I remember with great clarity how Crissie articulated this idea for FoodCorps,” Hassanein recalls. “She would use her experience and knowledge to train them and help them problem-solve, and create a sense of belonging and sense of purpose for them. I came home and e-mailed the donor and said, ‘Here’s the idea. Do you want a full proposal?’”
The donor immediately said yes, and the first FoodCorps program launched.
Within just a few years, FoodCorps service members helped create programs that made major impacts around Montana. They contracted 10 percent of Salish Kootenai College’s food budget to seven Flathead Indian Reservation vendors, forming the first tribal farm-to-cafeteria program. They established a six-acre student farm at MSU. The Farm to College Program at UM-Western purchased so much beef that Beaverhead County conducted a feasibility study to explore building a regional processing plant.
In 2009, McMullan attended Kinship Conservation Fellows, an environmental leadership program that emphasizes market-based approaches to environmental change. After attending the program, she co-founded a national FoodCorps program that has grown to eighty members in twelve states.
“It’s so inspiring to see how this young woman has gone from taking this kernel of an idea to turning it into a national program and organization in just ten years,” Hassanein says. “That’s just phenomenal. I can’t say enough about what a practical visionary she is.”
This past February, there was a hearing in the State Capitol regarding the Farm to School bill. The bill would provide funds for K-12 schools to buy more local food. While it had some similarities to the 2005 bill, a major difference was that more people now understand the importance of local food.
“It was amazing the number of people that were there to testify, and the clarity with which they were able to testify because there are so many [local food] examples they can call from,” McMullan says.
McMullan, for her part, continues to fight for local food in Montana. As the project director for the National Center for Appropriate Technology, she supervises and leads statewide local-food programs that serve educational institutions and communities, including Farm to Cafeteria Connections, FoodCorps Montana, and Grow Montana.
Going back to her farming roots and re-imagining something better has helped McMullan help Montanans discover the ways in which local food really matters.
“I think there’s a huge growing desire from people wanting to know who’s growing their food,” McMullan says. “It’s our way to connect with other people, with friends, and with farmers, but there’s also the connection with the earth. It’s the most basic fundamental part of being human.”
Farm to College Program Celebrates Ten Years at UM
The University of Montana’s Farm to College Program has come a long way in the past ten years. UM has fostered relationships with more than eighty Montana food-producing partners, and it has amped up local food purchasing to 22.5 percent of its $3 million food budget. In a state with a short growing season, that has made a significant impact on the agricultural economy.
After Crissie McMullan and her fellow students helped kick-start the program in 2003, University Dining Services took on some FoodCorps service members to help, and the program kept blooming. In fall 2010, Ian Finch became the first full-time UM Farm to College coordinator. The program serves food from nearly 120 different farms, ranches, and businesses in its campus eateries, including the Food Zoo, catering, concessions, the Cascade Country Store, and the UC Food Court.
The Fall Feastival, which has become an annual event at UM, celebrates the success of the Farm to College Program and provides students, faculty, and staff a holistic view of Montana’s agricultural food cycle.
In order to sell through the program, products must be:
• raised, grown, or wild harvested in Montana,
• processed by a Montana-owned business, or
• processed by any business that primarily uses raw materials
A major milestone for the program was hitting its goal of getting 100 percent of its beef from Montana grass-fed sources. UDS works with Yellowstone Grassfed Beef, an innovative partnership between two different ranches—J Bar L and Two Dot Land and Livestock—that together can fulfill UM’s needs through aggregation of their product and a yearly plan for UM’s menus and volume requirements.
When the University buys directly from vegetable farms, they use the Western Montana Growers Co-op as a way to tap into thirty-nine small-scale growers without having to coordinate with them individually. The co-op and Farm to College have partnered for ten years and continue to help each other grow.
“We have real stories from our partners who say if it weren’t for our program, they would have given up their business,” says UDS Director Mark LoParco.
One example is the Robins Family Orchard, a small cherry and stone- fruit operation in Polson that has sold to UM for years. Owner Kitte Robins has said that, “Without the University, we would give all this up.”
In the kitchen, campus-prepared meals using local foods sound like something off a five-star restaurant menu: cherry-braised kale, short ribs with chocolate and rosemary, cauliflower tagine, beef vindaloo.
“We label the local products in hopes that the information will help inform decisions and be an educational opportunity,” Finch says. “Wendell Berry is famous for his quote that ‘eating is an agricultural act.’ However, eating is an educational act, too, when one is presented with the information behind their food that can empower them to make better decisions about what they eat.”
The UM Farm to College Program has resulted in an explosion of creative sustainability and local food projects on campus. A large garden near the Lommasson Center now provides campus diners with spinach, tomatoes, peas, carrots, eggplant, strawberries, blueberries, hops, and other diverse seasonal produce, while a separate greenhouse gifted to UM by the Class of 2012 promises year-round harvests. Even food waste is composted and turned back into the soil.
And LoParco has other plans for total campus transformation: food forests, edible landscaping, aquaculture, and an outdoor classroom with a teaching kitchen. The seeds from Farm to College have undoubtedly grown into a wild kingdom of possibilities.
“We’re just going to keep building on that momentum and make things happen,” LoParco says.