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Food Bank of Wyoming lands federal grant to partner with more local producers

Cardboard boxes of onions, asparagus, bananas and crackers sit on and below a plastic folding table, with a car in the background.
Wyoming Food Bank
A Food Bank of Wyoming mobile pantry in Pinedale.

More local meat, produce and grains will be hitting food bank shelves this summer. The Food Bank of Wyoming was recently awarded a more than $500,000 Local Food Purchasing Agreement Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The goal of the funding is to buy more food from small-scale Wyoming producers and distribute it to folks in need across the state.

It’s the first time the Food Bank of Wyoming has gotten the grant, which they received at the end of last winter and have started putting to use this spring. In the past, they didn’t have anyone to directly coordinate with producers and got a lot of their food supply from Denver. But now, Odessa Oldham is taking on the challenge as the organization’s first-ever food sourcing manager.

“Not only do we get to buy from local producers and help them hopefully build up their operation and their production, but we get to turn around and give that money away for free as well,” she said.

In the 2023 fiscal year, the Food Bank served nearly eight percent of the state’s population and distributed nearly 10 million pounds of food. They partner with more than 150 brick-and-mortar locations to serve food at pantries and also put on 19 monthly mobile pantries throughout the state.

So far, Oldham’s been able to use the new grant funding to acquire more than 12,000 pounds of Wyoming beef, as well as grains, oats, celery and cucumbers. She’s partnered with producers in Fremont County, Wheatland, Ten Sleep, Powell and on the Wind River Reservation, but she said she’s got her sights set on expanding the program in a big way.

“Even if it's just one, I would love to get one producer from every county. I know that's a lofty goal, but that would be pretty neat,” she said.

When it comes to building connections with producers on the ground, Oldham is a rancher herself and has been getting calls from fellow ranchers who want to get involved with the grant. For the farming side of the program, she says tapping into already existing networks through the Wyoming Food Coalition and Eat Wyoming has been a big help.

Oldham’s also been going to farmers markets around the state to make face-to-face connections with producers who might be able to benefit from the grant. She said the community-focused mentality in the Wyoming food world is coming in handy as she grows the program.

“Even though we're such a large state land-wise, it's still a small, tight-knit group,” she said. “People are starting to work more together in that Wyoming mentality of helping our neighbors, those good cowboy ethics.”

But working with small-scale producers does come with its own set of challenges. Oldham said that while it’s relatively easy to freeze meat, bring it to the Food Bank’s center in Casper and then distribute it across the state, transporting more perishable goods like fruits and vegetables is another story.

“I have to try to think outside of the box: How can I purchase [that] and turn it around fast enough that it has a little bit longer shelf life? But I have a great team here that helps me with all of the logistics of that,” she said.

Wyoming’s fleeting and often volatile growing season also creates its own host of challenges. And the Food Bank also isn’t the only organization looking to buy local fresh foods. In theory, they’re competing with programs like Farm to School through the Wyoming Department of Education, which aims to bring local food into cafeterias.

But Oldham said there’s been way more collaboration than competition.

“[Farm to School Coordinator] Bobby Lane has been a huge asset. We talk and coordinate with each other so we're not stepping on each other's toes either, because it's a small market,” she said. “And we have a very short growing season, so we have to be mindful of one another.”

The grant lasts through July 2025 but the Food Bank plans to apply again for the next round of funding. Oldham said the Food Bank hasn't even used a quarter of the more than $500,000 grant, so local producers who might want to sell to the Food Bank should reach out.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.
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