LANDER—Boxes and coolers stand in untidy towers on a truck bed. They contain sturdy heads of cabbage, coral-hued carrots and microgreens that perfume the air. There are oyster mushrooms, romaine lettuce bunches and frozen pasture-raised chicken breasts. All were grown in Wyoming.
“Oh my god look at how pretty that is!” Chris Adkins said, holding a bag of bok choy from Cody. A moment later he marveled at bell peppers so vivid they nearly glowed. “Take a look at these!”
Adkins’ duty today is to deliver the comestibles to markets, restaurants and other northwest Wyoming customers. He can’t help but admire the goods, though.
“Trust me, this is the kind of stuff you expect at very fine restaurants,” he said of the Wyoming-raised meat.
Overseeing the job is LeAnn Miller, who trucked the goods from Casper early this morning. Wearing a T-shirt that reads “grow buy eat” under the image of a farm truck, Miller soon announces it’s time to commence “the amazing Jenga” of a delivery: Packing the truck in a way that makes sense for the offloading schedule. It’s a puzzle that requires more than one attempt before satisfaction is achieved.
It’s also an example of the logistical challenges Miller tackles each day as she works to connect Wyoming farmers, ranchers and small producers across the vast state with the consumers who want fresh, local food.
Miller, otherwise known as the Veggie Lady, is the local food broker for Fresh Foods Wyoming — a many-tentacled operation that connects shoppers to local food through an online store, markets and more.
Miller’s food-centric vocation is a bit unlikely; she spent most of her career in hospitality sales and marketing. By combining her formidable hawking skills with a genuine passion for the cause, she seems to have found her calling. She loves the human connections, the farm stories and even the puzzles.
“I never thought at my age, I would be a logistics dispatcher,” Miller, 67, said. But “I love what we’re doing.”
Customer feedback in this business, after all, is tangible. When she delivers a box of ingredients to a home in Lander, the woman who answers the door hugs her. “Thank you,” she said, “I love it!”
While all the parts of a local food system exist in Wyoming, they needed someone to help piece them together, said Central Wyoming College Community Food System Specialist Melissa Hemken. “I think what [Miller] has done a lot for the local food system is to show that it is possible to source locally.”
The food gap
Miller grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota. Along with milking cows, her German grandfather also planted corn and soybeans, her grandmother raised hundreds of chickens for an egg operation and her family grew a large kitchen garden.
After her parents divorced, her mom moved the family to Casper when Miller was 13. The harsh growing conditions surprised her.
“You couldn’t just throw seeds in the ground and grow gardens here,” she said. “It took a lot more effort.”
She didn’t think much more about gardening until the arrival of her son Jesse many years later. He became a talented wrestler interested in all facets of nutrition, including healthy food. “He has always seen food as medicine,” she said. That’s when Miller started reconsidering local food. But Wyoming-grown fare was hard to access, she said.
The wrestler’s interest in nutrition grew as he went to medical school and became Dr. Miller. In the early 2010s, Dr. Miller received a USDA grant to conduct a food assessment study in Natrona County. His mother helped.
What they found, she said, was a void of farmers “producing enough to supply a large number of people.” At the same time, “I had lots of consumer interest. People wanted it, they were anxious to get it.”
That led to a state-wide food assessment that drew similar conclusions and found the majority of Wyoming’s farmers are in rural areas, while most who desire local food are in populated regions. The needs presented themselves plainly: Wyoming’s farmers needed help marketing and transporting products, while consumers needed avenues to buy them.
“You can’t run three hours to Worland every time you want to pick up a head of lettuce,” Miller said. “So basically, that’s how Fresh Foods was born.”
The veggie box
Fresh Foods Wyoming is a L3C company, which means it has a social mission. “Our main focus is not profit-oriented as much as it is social-oriented,” Miller said. In 2014, Fresh Foods partnered with Lloyd Craft Farms in Worland to sell and distribute veggie boxes in a modified community supported agriculture model — with Fresh Foods paying the farm in advance, then selling and delivering the boxes.
The operation started out with 10 veggie box subscriptions. Today it’s up to roughly 120 across the state, Miller said, and has also expanded to around 40 producers. That has led to other outgrowths, including an online shop called Eat Wyoming, a stand at the Casper farmers’ market, wholesale deliveries to restaurants and stores, even a storefront in Casper.
Miller oversees a complex system of pickups and drop-offs from farms to regional hubs and individual customers — it spans from Torrington to Cody and Rock Springs to Gillette. She spends a lot of time on the phone, checking with customers to see what they want, or with producers about what’s in season. She also works on a community greenhouse project to help spur Casper residents to grow more of their own. She is involved in the Wyoming Food Coalition and sits on a state steering committee for the USDA Regional Food Business Centers.
Miller’s sister, Penney, described her as “the energizer bunny.”
“She just never stops,” Penney Miller said.
Hemken with CWC, who works closely with Miller, said one thing she has done well is highlight and communicate what’s available.
For example: fresh ginger root — a coveted ingredient for chefs — is hydroponically grown in Powell. And thanks to Miller, chefs know and can buy it.
As Miller helped distribute and diversify the products, Hemken said, “it just got more people excited about local food and seeing how they could make more of a meal of it beyond just beef.”
Today, customers can buy milk from Afton, garlic scapes from Lander, beans from Shoshoni, salad greens from Greybull, lamb from Douglas and ancient-grain flour from Ralston through Wyoming Fresh Foods and Eat Wyoming. Many of the farmers operate on less than five acres, Miller said.
Hemken operates a chick hatchery, and Eat Wyoming sells her eggs and chickens. “I feel like whenever I call her for a producer-related question, she’s on it double fast,” Hemken said. “She really has the producers’ backs.”
The food hub
On a Wednesday afternoon in July, the Eat Wyoming headquarters — a small blue house on a busy Casper strip of liquor stores and tattoo parlors — is a hub of activity.
Outside the front door, potatoes, lettuce and tomatoes grow in pots. Products like barbecue sauce and fermented vinegar line the front room shelves, and Miller listens to a Zoom meeting in her office. In a workspace in the back, Penney Miller packs veggie bags for customer pick-up. They’ve already delivered 20 bags today — another 25 or so crowd tables as she loads them with fennel, cucumbers, broccoli and other produce. Customers drift in to pick up their shares.
Janel Moore is one of those. She appreciates the opportunity to directly consume Wyoming agriculture, she said. “I am very much about supporting our local farmers.”
Penney Miller has been volunteering since the beginning, back when there were only a handful to pack. She also joins her sister at Saturday markets, where they sell excess veggies at a booth. “LeAnn and I are both the best hawkers in the world,” she said. “She’s better than me. I learned from the best.”
Illustrating her sales proclivity, Miller said they consistently sell out for a simple reason: They have the best stuff. “The producers that I have, their vegetables are absolutely beautiful,” she said.
Miller never misses an opportunity to boast about Wyoming products. In her office a little while later, she is on the phone with a young Torrington farmer named Anthonie Servantez, gushing over his salanova lettuce. “It was awesome!” she said.
Servantez got into gardening in 2020, and when he took extra tomatoes to the farmers’ market, “everybody loved them,” he said. He decided to make a go of it, but ran into challenges. Selling products when farmers’ markets are out of season is tough, and all the energy the markets require takes away from the work of cultivating. Finding Miller has been “a serious game changer.” With someone to pick up, market and sell his products, he said, he has time to actually grow them. “She does all the real hard work.”
The other thing Miller does is share the stories of Wyoming producers with conviction, said Chef Leah Burback, who works with Miller to sell prepared food through her company Heirloom and Native. That makes the goods all the more valuable to consumers.
“The best part to me is seeing her talk to a producer, then come back and tell the consumer their story,” Burback said. “It’s a full circle for her.”