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Farm Hands director on front line of battling hunger in the Flathead

by JEREMY WEBER
Daily Inter Lake | May 17, 2021 12:00 AM

Gretchen Boyer is working hard to make sure no one in the Flathead Valley goes hungry.

Since taking over as executive director of Farm Hands Nourish the Flathead in 2017, Boyer, of Whitefish, has seen the nonprofit staff grow from the 20 hours a week she alone put in from her home to an organization with four full-time and two part-time employees and an Americorps Vista volunteer.

During that same time, she has seen the organization’s annual budget grow from $35,000 annually in 2017 to more than $450,000 in 2021.

“We have really grown the organization over the past few years and really found the ways that we can serve our community by providing healthy, local food to people who could otherwise not afford it,” Boyer said. “We are looking at our food system as a whole and finding ways that we can help our community by focusing on the importance of building that system. We can do that in many ways.”

Boyer said when she moved to Whitefish in 1994, she spent several seasons as a ski bum, lamenting how back then she could afford to work on Big Mountain for minimum wage and still afford her apartment. She spent a lot of time on the mountain, but said she has always been interested in community activism and was passionate about the local food system.

With a degree in psychology, Boyer soon found a job with the Montana Academy therapeutic boarding school in Marion, but not before working as an intern at Whitefish’s Purple Frog Gardens, where she learned about growing food, farming and the importance of the local food economy from Pam Gerwe and Barb Brant.

Boyer spent 18 years working at Montana Academy, always finding opportunities for her students to visit Purple Frog Gardens and other farms around the area, but when the opportunity presented itself to work in Whitefish and be directly involved in the community food system, Boyer jumped at the chance. She has continued to cultivate her relationship with the farmers of the Flathead Valley, who she refers to as true “rock stars.”

“They are so passionate about the work that they do, even though it is some of the hardest work around,” she said. “Our local farmers are some of the hardest working people I know. I am blessed to be able to be an advocate for the work that they do.”

BOYER JOINED the Farm Hands board in 2004, but did not take over as executive director until 2017. Since then, she has seen the organization flourish.

“Ultimately, it would be wonderful if nobody needed our services. Healthy food is a human right, but folks with limited means often have to buy highly processed, low nutrient foods. Our programs help alleviate that problem,” she said.

Under Boyer’s leadership, Farm Hands has taken on a partnership with the Columbia Falls school district to take over the farm-to-school program, providing fresh foods for students.

Farm Hands also has taken over management of the Wildcat Garden and will be offering summer camps to kids in the district thanks to a donation from the Whitefish Community Foundation’s kids fund.

In addition, Farm Hands provides students with meals through its backpack programs in Columbia Falls, Whitefish, Olney and Trego, and recently introduced Fresh Snack Fridays, a program that provides a fresh fruit or vegetable snack grown by local farmers to students in Columbia Falls.

FARM HANDS was hard at work preparing meal bags for students during spring break when the COVID-19 pandemic shut the schools down. Instead of shutting down, Farm Hands worked with schools to make sure the food found its way to area students, riding along on the school’s bus routes to deliver more than 750 bags, up from the 350 that were being delivered before the virus. The organization also saw donations skyrocket during that time.

“When you have a school district with many students living in rural areas, how do you get the food to kids out there who probably need it the most? The school district did such an amazing job helping us deal with that,” Boyer said. “We raised $200,000 between March and May of last year, but it was absolutely imperative that we did so we could meet the increased demand we were seeing. The community support that we have is amazing.”

Outside of area schools, Farm Hands has a strong presence in local farmer markets, helping people find healthy foods through the SNAP double dollar program as well as working with several area health clinics that provide their patients with food prescriptions.

With the help of a transport van the organization was able to purchase last year, Boyer is hoping to see Farm Hands help even more people in 2021.

“We have all of this momentum built up and it feels good,” she said. “My job now is to make sure we can continue to fund all of these amazing things that we are doing and keep employing these amazing people I have on staff right now.”

Reporter Jeremy Weber may be reached at 758-4446 or jweber@dailyinterlake.com