Sustainable Missoula: Gardens help Missoula’s Native American population get healthy

Seeding a raised bed at the MUIHC Community Garden. (Courtesy photo)

Sitting on top of a small asphalt parking lot at 830 W. Central Ave., you can find 12 cedar wood raised garden boxes.

The boxes are surrounded by a wooden post-and-cinder block fence to separate it from the rest of the parking lot.

During the summer, you will see most garden staples that tend to do well in Montana, such as onions, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, beets, kale and others, growing vibrantly.

This is the Missoula Urban Indian Health Center (MUIHC) Community Garden.

In the field of public health, it is well known that the American Indian population suffers some of the highest rates of diet-related diseases (diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer) when compared to all other ethnicities.

Also, the built environments in many American Indian communities have a lack of access to fresh, healthy and affordable food, yet there exists an abundance of cheap, calorie-dense, convenience foods with little to no nutritional value.

One problem found with American Indians leaving a reservation community is that dietary patterns developed in that food environment will often stay the same, even after living for a period of time in an urban setting, where access to healthier and more affordable food often increases.

The reason for this is because even though there may be an increase in access to healthier food in an urban community, there is also an increase in access to retail and food vendors offering not so healthy foods.

Without the right social support, it can be difficult for American Indians transitioning to an urban community to change dietary patterns and take advantage of an increase in access to affordable, healthy food.

The MUIHC Community Health Program engages and works with the American Indian community to achieve excellent health and quality of life.

In the spring of 2017, the MUIHC Community Garden was constructed to highlight urban gardening as a strategy for behavior change as well as community development with Missoula urban Indians. Although a strong and vibrant community-based food system exists in Missoula, American Indians are seemingly underrepresented in the greater Missoula community when it comes engaging activities such as community gardens, farmers markets, community supported agriculture, and home gardening.

The purpose of the MUIHC Community Garden is to provide a place where families and members of different Indian nations, of all ages, can come together, make connections and develop the skill to grow their own fruits and vegetables.

In the two years since the development of the community garden, elders, families, individuals and couples have had their own garden plots. Indian nations from across the Great Plains, the Great Basin, as well as the Southwest have been represented.

Most participants have had little to no gardening experience, yet with guidance and mentorship from the MUIHC Community Health Program, they have planned, maintained and harvested their garden plots.

The gardeners have demonstrated great determination, working in rain, sunshine, heat and cold throughout the course of a growing season beginning in April and ending in October. The have also created close relationships with each other centered on food.

As September comes to an end, so will this second season at the MUIHC Community Garden. There is much to celebrate and there is also much to work on.

Our hope is that through the experience of growing their own fresh and nutritious food, this year’s community garden participants enjoy a stronger sense of belonging in Missoula and that they have developed some basic gardening skills and continue to become engaged in local food systems and agriculture beyond the MUIHC Community Garden.

Q.J. Means is the Community Health Coordinator at the Missoula Urban Indian Health Center.

Upcoming Sustainability Events:

September 15: 14th annual Spontaneous Construction festival of creative reinvention at Home ReSource. Building contest starts at 9 a.m. Kid’s activities and local food start at 11 a.m. Live music all day. Sign up to volunteer. Free admission; building contestants pay a registration fee.

September 15: Free Cycles Climate Ride, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.

September 18, September 25, October 2: Mobile Market, Missoula Urban Indian Health Center Parking Lot, 4:30-5:30 pm

October 4: Climate Smart’s Monthly Meetupon Transportation and Smart Growth, Imagine Nation Brewing Co., 5-7 p.m.

October 9: November 12:American Indian Women’s Book Club, Missoula Urban Indian Health Center Parking Lot, 5:30-7:30 p.m.

October 20: Fall Wellness Clinic, Grand Opening of Missoula Urban Indian Health Center’s Medical Services

October 20: Missoula Clean Energy Expo, Caras Park, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.