Leah Grunzke is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Dillon, MT.

The wind is yowling through the canyons.  Skeletal fingers of cottonwood and willow shiver and quake in the February cold, and some days I can hardly recall the taste of sunshine in a fresh-picked tomato.  In the throes of a long Montana winter, the joys of growing fresh, nutritious food right in our own backyards can seem like a hazy, untouchable memory.  What better time for the Montana FoodCorps team to come together, to refresh our commitment to getting healthy local foods to kids?

This month brought the opportunity to do just that, as we braved frozen highways to land in the breathtaking Paradise Valley for the FoodCorps Winter Retreat.  We found ourselves in the Tom Miner Basin at the spectacular B Bar Ranch, a unique organization committed to advancing a “healthy, thriving ecosystem and the human endeavors within it”.  It was the perfect setting to cozy up, swap stories, learn from each other and recharge for the work that lies ahead.

Leah Grunzke shares her strategic plan

With more than half our year’s term of service complete, we had plenty of stories to swap.  While we’re all working to provide nutrition education, engage and empower our neighbors, and increase access to healthy local foods, the challenges and opportunities that arise in each of our communities take very different shapes.  Sharing what’s working (or not!) has proven to be the best way to generate new ideas for what lies ahead.

Opportunities for learning and planning abounded during our three days at the ranch.  We chatted with Cecily Upton, the Program Director for National FoodCorps, and Mary Stein of the National Farm to School Network and Katie Bark of Montana Team Nutrition shared resources and practical guidance.  We brainstormed ideas for a user-friendly Farm to Cafeteria Connectionsnetwork, discussed how to connect with Montana campuses and universities, got practical advice on greenhouse production and season extension, and heard inspirational stories of success using local foods at Livingston HealthCare.  And of course, our fearless leader, Crissie McMullan, shared her positivity, enthusiasm and support as we practiced strategic planning and leadership development and reflected on the work we’re doing.

On top of all the work we got done, we still found time to hike and ski, visit the draft horses and chat with the gregarious ranch chef, tour the greenhouse, and strengthen our bond as a group of people with the same passion for sustainable food systems.  We left the ranch recharged and excited about the days ahead.  Spring is right around the corner, and we’ve got seeds to plant, bellies to fill, and a new generation of leaders to cultivate.  It’s time to get to work.