helping hands

Land to Hand’s Gretchen Boyer works tirelessly to make healthy food available to everyone.

FEATURE

Clare Menzel, Whitefish Montana, ski, author

BY COLLEEN O’BRIEN

Afew days before spring break, veils of virga rim the valley. Intermittently, clouds open and ice pellets pour from the sky. Tight buds poke from the tips of the fruit trees and rinds of squash wither in the compost bins at the Wildcat Garden in Columbia Falls. Across town, Land to Hand Executive Director Gretchen Boyer works on her laptop. It sits on a simple, clean counter. Hundreds of tidy totes packed with food crowd the room’s tables awaiting delivery to school kids.

If you’ve checked out seeds from the library, if you’ve stretched your food dollars at any of the Flathead Valley’s farmers markets, if your child ate a locally grown carrot at school, or if you’ve enjoyed a meal at the Whitefish Farmers Market served in a compostable container, then the work of Boyer, the force behind Land to Hand Montana, has impacted you just as it has thousands of others.

Land to Hand Montana’s mission is to build a community food system that provides everyone access to healthy food. Boyer believes healthy food is a human right and has dedicated her career to ensuring its availability.

“To make sure everyone’s included—for real—has become an important piece for me,” Boyer says. “I want a more equitable community. How can low-income community members have as much access [to fresh, healthy food] as the rest of us?”

She and her Land to Hand Montana colleagues embody the Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

“I want a more equitable community. How can low-income community members have as much access [to fresh, healthy food] as the rest of us?” – Gretchen Boyer

 

Boyer grew up in Theinsville, Wisconsin, in a family that served their community. “How do you generate community? You give back. That’s what my dad taught us.” She came to the Flathead in 1994, arriving “under the cover of darkness” and awoke to a view of Big Mountain. She says she knew, “This is where I want to be.” That sense was reinforced when, come summer, she drove Going-to-the-Sun-Road and saw Wild Goose Island surrounded by glacier-blue water and the peaks of the St. Mary Valley. The same scene adorned a poster that hung on her bedroom wall throughout her teens. Until she saw it in person, she hadn’t known where it was.

While working at the Montana Academy, a therapeutic boarding school, Boyer volunteered with Farm Hands Nourish the Flathead. That organization recently became Land to Hand Montana. It began in 2002 when one of those groups of thoughtful, committed citizens came together to create a map to connect residents with local farmers and ranchers. In 2011 that group formalized as a nonprofit that worked to facilitate the use of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) dollars at farmers markets.

For years, Boyer involved her students in food access work and community gardens. She realized the most successful kids were those who felt they belonged. “It’s about community. As humans we need each other, and it doesn’t just happen. You have to make efforts to do that.” Eventually, she was drawn to a career change. “When I was working for Montana Academy and driving a lot, I would dream about having a job working for Farm Hands.” Boyer’s dream manifested in 2016 when Farm Hands received a grant to expand their farmers market programs. The volunteer organization needed to hire someone. In the beginning, she worked 20 hours a week from her kitchen counter. The $35,000 budget didn’t include money for an office. Boyer secured additional grants and asked, “What do we want to be as an organization and how do we want to grow?”

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Grow they did. Land to Hand’s programs expanded. They developed community gardens, obtained office space, and cultivated a valley-wide community of healthy food advocates. Then the pandemic hit. According to Montana State University, the percentage of Montana households suffering food insecurity increased from 11 percent to 18 percent. Food insecure families lack consistent access to enough food—in both quantity and quality—to maintain a healthy life. As the problem grew in the Flathead, Boyer secured emergency funding and worked to meet the burgeoning need. This year she allocates a budget of $450,000 while supervising four employees and two AmeriCorps/Vista volunteers.

“Gretchen can’t be stopped. She is a fearless advocate for food access,” says Caitlin Coghlan, a nutrition educator and Land to Hand Montana board member. “She’s got a big heart but she’s also strategic.”
Under Boyer’s direction, Land to Hand’s network extends to all corners of the Flathead, as evidenced by the tale of the carrots. Every Friday, Land to Hand provides a fresh, local snack to 1,500 Columbia Falls school kids. Boyer contracted with North Shore Farms to buy 7,500 pounds of carrots and needed to store the harvest. She found space for a pallet at the North Valley Food Bank and Two Bear Farm had room in their cooler for the rest. Each week, special education students wash, bag, and deliver the vegetables.

As the school year progressed, Boyer realized she’d over-purchased by about 1,500 pounds. Land to Hand’s education manager, Whitney Pratt, sent out a single email and sold the extra carrots to local food banks and schools. “Our community loves local food. We could have sold 4,000 pounds of carrots,” Pratt says.

The community support and trust flow in all directions. Mindful of the stigma associated with food insecurity and needing help, Boyer and her staff treat everyone with dignity. They trust what community members tell them they need and don’t require reams of paperwork. Boyer noticed participation in their Columbia Falls Backpack Program, which sends meals home with children on Fridays, plummeted for middle schoolers. Numbers dropped from over 300 kids in the lower grades to around 35 in junior high.

She realized the need probably persisted, but the stigma prevented kids from taking food home, so Land to Hand implemented Thursday Pickup. They set food bags and seasonal fruits and veggies in front of their building. A sign suggests one bag per kid. They trust folks to take what they need.

“I love seeing the impact of our work,” Boyer says. “My favorite are the small anecdotal stories like the mom who comes to our Thursday Pickup, and we had a bunch of plums out. She asked, ‘Are these plums for us? Can we take them?’ I told her to take as much as she wanted. She told us she’d just gone to the grocery store and her daughter asked for plums, but the mom had to say no because they couldn’t afford them. We told her to take five bags.”

Photos by Andrew Getts

Food insecurity impacts growth and development as well as children’s ability to control their emotions and behavior. When kids have eaten, “it makes a world of difference,” says Jean-Francois Welsh. He manages the backpack program at Kalispell’s Elrod Elementary, which operates in conjunction with the Flathead Food Bank. “Once they’re fed, they can focus on learning, not hunger and food. The kids go from withdrawn to engaged.”
A fifth-grade participant says, “The snacks make me feel happy.”

Before any healthy food makes its way to hungry kids, it begins as a seed. Boyer explains that “Free the Seeds,” an annual community event, is at the foundation of everything the organization does. “It’s all about understanding that seeds are a really important commodity and the act of saving them is a radical act,” she says. “The majority of the world’s seeds are owned by four large chemical companies.”

“The world’s seeds are losing diversity at an alarming rate,” Pratt says. That leaves the food supply vulnerable to climate change, blight, and other variables. Seeds are both the origin of food and also require the environmental stewardship that Land to Hand teaches in their gardens.

Anyone can check seeds out at ImagineIF Library in Columbia Falls, cultivate the plants and, once they go to seed, donate all they checked out and more back to the library. Volunteers and Land to Hand staff organize the seeds into over 10,000 packets for the “Free the Seeds Fair and Giveaway,” which sends open-pollinated, non-GMO seeds into gardens across the Flathead. The fair also includes classes on everything from pickling to mushroom cultivation to skin care.

Due to the pandemic, the event went virtual in 2021 and 2022. While Boyer and her staff look forward to returning to in-person, the remote conference had its upsides. Participants hailed from across the state and around the world. A Yale student hopes to replicate the program. Going virtual meant presenters focused on a remote audience so the recordings translated smoothly to YouTube. “The online workshops are really easy for people to engage with later,” Pratt says. Given the success of remote access, Boyer plans to offer a virtual option in tandem with the in-person gathering next year.

In another pandemic-driven shift, the need for not merely food, but healthy food became apparent and moved assistance away from a “you get what you get” model to one of choice. Land to Hand’s farmers market programs include double SNAP dollars, senior coupons, school coins and food prescriptions. Each allows recipients to make personal, healthy food choices. For food prescriptions, local clinics refer clients who are food insecure, have children and have a chronic illness. “The goal is to increase comfort with using fruits and vegetables in the kitchen and to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables,” Boyer says.

Recipients receive funds to use at the farmers markets as well as seasonal recipes incorporating foods available each week, such as greens or bok choy. Land to Hand also provides expensive ingredients such as olive oil and coconut milk. “This year we just had our first cohort that was part of the diabetes clinic and all of them experienced a drop in their A1C, which is a diabetes marker, and almost all of them saw decent weight loss over the course of the program,” Boyer says.

Much like belonging and fostering community, zero-waste doesn’t just happen. It demands education, cooperation and, Boyer laughs, “really big gloves.” Because it attracts lots of food trucks, the Whitefish Farmers Market generates tons of garbage. Boyer spearheaded the effort to bring the market to zero-waste. Vendors commit to using compostable containers, consumers place items in the proper bins, and Land to Hand sorts through the debris, incorporating it with Dirt Rich Compost. The trash not only stays out of the landfill but becomes nutrient-dense soil for the organization’s gardens.

Boyer is also in charge of relocating Land to Hand’s Columbia Falls headquarters, which opens up new possibilities. “It’s a game-changer for us in so many ways,” Boyer says. By June, the building will have a new spot next to the Wildcat Garden with kitchen and bathroom access for gardeners. “The cool thing is we’re going to redo the porches and add double doors so we can drive a pallet into the building.” It also has enough space so that they can hopefully one day house their own walk-in cooler.

Boyer cites her staff as the most important aspect of the nonprofit. She draws inspiration from them and their commitment to equality and integrity. Boyer wants to raise wages to the valley’s post-pandemic scale and offer health insurance. “I can’t run an organization that’s working to alleviate poverty and then pay my employees a wage of poverty.”

Pratt says, “Gretchen has great staff because of how great Gretchen is. It’s a privilege to work for her.”
Outreach coordinator Andrea Getts says, “The success of Farm Hands and Land to Hand Montana has been largely due to Gretchen. I wouldn’t be working here if she wasn’t such a good supervisor.”

Spring is on the way and the future of Land to Hand Montana is bright. Boyer says that with more funding, they could expand their food to school program, procure and broker more local produce, and increase their square footage. But first, she wants to make sure they’re doing all that they already do, well. Pratt says that if they had a huge staff and an unlimited budget, Land to Hand Montana could easily triple.

“Tomorrow,” Boyer adds. She grins, her eyes bright in the way of a thoughtful, committed citizen changing the world and says, “Anything is possible.”

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