MSU mobile farm stand aims to increase access to local food
By Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service
BOZEMAN — Montana State University agroecology student Hadley Barnard has learned to ask customers purchasing produce from the university’s mobile farm stand what vegetables they’d like to see at the next week’s stand.
“I might assume that everybody loves kale, and then nobody wants kale,” she said. “At first I tried to predict what people would want, and then I learned that I need to simply ask them.”
The lesson is one of many that Barnard said she and fellow student Serena Whitcome have learned from operating the farm stand at Legion Villa, a 61-unit affordable housing community for seniors in Bozeman. Beginning in July and continuing into October, Barnard and Whitcome have operated the mobile farm stand once per week, selling vegetables at a discounted rate to residents of the community.
The mobile farm stand seeks to strengthen community food security in southwest Montana by increasing access to fresh, nutritious produce for households with limited resources. It is a partnership between MSU’s Towne's Harvest Garden and the Gallatin Valley Food Bank. All produce sold has been grown by MSU students at Towne's Harvest Garden, which is located on the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station’s Horticulture Farm just west of campus. In addition to accepting cash, credit and debit cards and checks, the farm stand also accepts WIC vouchers and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program vouchers, according to Mac Burgess, Towne’s Harvest Garden director and practicum instructor and an assistant professor of plant science and plant pathology in the MSU College of Agriculture.
Barnard and Whitcome run the stand as part of their Towne’s Harvest Garden practicum, a requirement for students in the sustainable food and bioenergy systems program at MSU. As part of their responsibilities, Barnard and Whitcome spend several hours at Towne’s Harvest Garden before heading to Legion Villa, selecting and boxing up vegetables to take. They manage an inventory system to keep track of what is taken and what comes back to the farm unsold, and they also track the form of payment customers use to purchase the produce. If the vegetables are paid for with WIC vouchers or Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program vouchers, the students submit the appropriate paperwork to be reimbursed for those vouchers.
As a student who is interested in creating more sustainable food systems, Barnard said the experience of operating the mobile farm stand has been invaluable.
“When you want to work to make decisions that affect food access for different communities, it’s important to not sit back and make decisions from afar,” she said. “It’s really valuable to actually talk to people in communities that your work is impacting and hear what they think would be valuable.”
Barnard noted that the farm stand also simultaneously provides an important service in the community.
“Part of having a sustainable community is making sure that all of the members of a community have access to fresh, locally produced food,” she said. “So that is something this project really makes possible.”
MSU’s mobile farm stand dates back to 2011, when collaborators at MSU and Gallatin Valley Food Bank received a grant to help fund it, according to Marcy Gaston, who was then a graduate student at MSU. Gaston said that the first year, the stand operated at Legion Villa. In subsequent years, it moved to different communities, including Three Forks, Gallatin Gateway and Belgrade. In Bozeman, in addition to operating at Legion Villa, over the years it has also operated at Darlington Manor and at MSU Family and Graduate Housing.
Ultimately, there was a pull to operate the farm stand in Bozeman because that’s where it was having the most impact, Gaston said.
“Our goal was to target more lower-income residents, and we found the closer we got to Bozeman, the more people we were able to reach,” she said.
The mobile farm stand is one part of Towne’s Harvest Garden, the university’s three-acre diversified vegetable and educational research farm. Towne’s Harvest Garden was founded in 2006 by a group of students. Today, it serves as an experiential classroom for a variety of academic programs on campus, including sustainable food and bioenergy systems, horticulture, hospitality management and culinary arts, and the Montana Dietetic Internship, among others. In addition to the mobile farm stand, Towne’s Harvest Garden operates a weekly farm stand on the MSU campus and offers shares of its vegetables through a community-supported agriculture program. It also supplies produce for the Gallatin Valley Food Bank. Towne’s Harvest Garden and the sustainable food and bioenergy systems program are both cooperatively run by two MSU colleges: The College of Education, Health and Human Development and the College of Agriculture.