Thursday, December 15, 2011

Katie Wheeler Explores Links in the Food Supply Chain

Katie Wheeler is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Kalispell, MT.

Jenny Montague, Kalispell District 5 Food Services Director, shares my vision of serving more healthy, locally-grown foods to kids. And even though this is her first year on the job, she’s already done amazing work, incorporating Montana beef patties, Flathead cherries, and local carrots, among other products, into school lunches and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program.

She’s ambitious, and wants to do even more. Recently, though, she wrote an email exploring what’s holding her back. “The biggest thing that keeps getting me with...[procuring] local food is our evident lack of food processing ability, in the valley and within food service.” 

Our five elementary schools lack full kitchens and all lunches are made at Flathead High and then transported to the various schools.  Jenny went on to write, “The raw foods themselves are completely affordable to buy locally - at least the ones that are easier to grow here - squash, carrots, root vegetables, etc.”  For us, as far as I can tell, it’s a matter of capacity: we don’t have the space or staff hours to add in extra time to cut, peel or core produce, so it must be received already in that form.

The building blocks for a local food system already exist, and this October our schools served green bell peppers from a supply chain succinctly captured in the picture below. From right to left is the farmer (Harlequin Produce’s Kaley Hess), the aggregator (Western Montana Growers Cooperative’s Jim Sugarek and Dave Prather), the processor (Karl Sutton of Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center), and the distributor (Jon Clarenbach of Charlie’s Produce).

It all seems pretty flawless.  Still, we need more models like these to really fill the needs of our school district’s 5600 students.

One of the problems is that there are farmers north of Kalispell who’d like to sell to the district, but for them to ship their produce two hours or more to Ronan’s Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center is simply not practical.  Jenny described the situation best: “Many of the local Flathead farmers have contacted me, and I am trying my best to represent everyone - however I am missing a link.  Either I need to create a more substantial processing facility within food service, requiring big investment in equipment and training labor - or a processing facility needs to exist in Kalispell.” 

To better explore this issue of the lack of processing and local food infrastructure, I spent this past weekend at the first-ever Five Valleys Food and Agriculture Summit, hosted by MMFEC and the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition.  The summit brought together farmers, ranchers, processors, distributors, extension agents, restaurateurs, professors, and local food advocates.  Together we learned from examples of current partnerships, met potential new stakeholders, and brainstormed ways to improve the system.

In the end, we didn’t solve the challenge of rebuilding a local food system.  We did, however, make important connections with key players who can help us take more steps in the right direction.

In fact, some of us have decided to host a similar meeting in January to continue the conversation, particularly focusing on the needs of our local schools.  By working together, we aim not only to change the menu in Kalispell District 5, but to build a better food system for us all.

 Two key factors for successful meetings: Great food. Great views.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Lea Howe Brings High Schoolers to the Table

Lea Howe is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Boulder, MT.

I didn’t sleep well the night before. As I wrestled with my sheets, I imagined the worst: hushed whispers and muffled laughter, eye rolls, heads nodding off…or worse, expressionless silent stares.  I couldn’t remember the last time I felt this way. I walked into the Jefferson High School Film class with rattled nerves, a print out of my talking points, some homemade granola, and a worst-case-scenario backup video of Jamie Oliver’s charismatic TED Talk on School Food - if all else failed, I would hit play and let Jamie run the show as I passed out delicious granola.

Mr. Hesford—the beloved film teacher— settled his large class, gave a friendly introduction, and then left me to run the class. I instinctively looked down at the notes in my hand and started clamoring about food being the solution to many of the world’s problems. I went on and on about the ills of our food system and the resulting environmental, health and economic crises. 

After rattling off a couple statistics, I glanced up from my paper for the first time and actually looked at the class. It was a diverse bunch: there were athletes, hunters, and artists, some dressed in pajamas and others were done up in high heels and make-up.  It occurred to me as I paused and looked around the room, rather than preaching my beliefs, hopes and dreams, I wanted to get to know them and hear what they had to say.

I broke the ice with a simple question, “What are some of your favorite foods?”  Immediately, one of the outgoing jocks yelled “Steak!” Other classmates chimed in with “Pizza,” “Pasta,”“Meat” etc.  Good. I had their attention. We talked about our “go to” comfort foods.  This led into a discussion of foods that make us feel best physically and emotionally.  The athletes talked about the foods they eat before big games. Other students talked about how sugar-laden energy drinks made them “crash.” And most agreed that it was hard to eat well with the lack of healthy food in Boulder.

We were getting somewhere: we all agreed that diet effects behavior and mood.  And with a little prodding, the class agreed that fresh foods are the best way to stay healthy, do well in school, and feed our families. Students excitedly talked about the possibility of getting a salad bar at the school and even learning to cook themselves. We eventually landed on the topic of our first PSA film: the effect of diet on academic and athletic achievement.

Fortunately, we never had to tune into Jamie. When I began to really listen to the students, we together unearthed our best ideas.  I certainly had to steer the ship but it was the students driving the conversation forward. After all, they shop at the L&P, the local grocery store, down the block. They know their friends. They understand their community.

Students left the class excited and empowered to make change in Boulder (or at least in their personal diets), I was not handed a “how to” manual when I arrived in Montana. Listening to the students in the film class that day, it became abundantly clear that collaboration is the most important ingredient in making change.  It is the diversity of voices that gives the food movement strength. And it’s that strength that I am going to try to tap into this year in Boulder.

Power Granola 
4C rolled oats   
1C dried cherries
1C sliced raw almonds
1/2C sesame seeds   
1C raisins
1C ea. sunflower seeds & pecans
1/2 C pumpkin seeds
2C grated coconut      
3/4C honey               
1t. vanilla 
3/4C vegetable oil

Mix in a large bowl:  oats, almonds,   sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pecans, and pumpkin seeds.
Combine honey, oil and vanilla and warm; then pour over oats and nuts.  Mix well and divide onto 2 cookie sheets lined with parchment paper.
Bake at 325° until brown (about 20 minutes), stirring every 5-10 minutes.
Cool, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking together; then add cherries, raisins and coconut.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Leah Grunzke Offers Experiential Education for Educators

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

The chill of winter was already in the air as I hauled our mobile garden box out of the greenhouse.  The fresh green of the veggie starts within were a radiant contrast to the sunken browns of frost-nipped pumpkins that surrounded us, and sixty wide-eyed kids edged in for a closer look.

“Who can tell me what we have growing here?”  

 A chorus of excited chirps rang out:

 “Those’re beets!  I see the red!” 
 “Spinach…I love spinach!”  

 “Is that a watermelon?!”

This was the final fall “Rural Friday”, a program where K-8 students from small communities throughout Beaverhead County come together to learn, discuss, and celebrate what sustainable agriculture means in their own lives.  Two dozen student teachers from the UM Western Education department selected and designed the curriculum, focusing on regional food systems, home gardening and the importance of healthy eating.  Schoolyard gardening is becoming a more central educational trend throughout the country, so the real-world practice and expertise these student teachers are gaining at the campus garden will directly benefit their future careers.

The rural kids skipped along strawbale benches and grazed on our few remaining carrots as the student teachers led them to their work stations.  Brandishing power drills and staple guns, the teams set to work building their own mobile gardens to bring back to their classrooms.  Older kids helped the younger kids, as everybody practiced technical skills, leadership and cooperation in addition to learning the science of food production.  They took pride in picking out their favorite vegetable varieties (and learned why you can’t grow bananas in a garden box in Montana).
As well, first Lady Nancy Schweitzer joined in the festivities—an indication that programs like this are taking a central role in the discussion of education and public policy.  The experiential learning system that UM Western is providing its students, reinforced by dynamic educational facilities like the Campus Community Garden, is helping develop the movers and shakers of tomorrow’s food system.  

The rural students will take these lessons back home with them, to share with their families and communities.  And hopefully, with a little water and a sunny window, they’ll be snacking on homegrown veggies well into the icy winter months.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lindsay Howard Digs into the Details of Farm to School

Lindsay Howard is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Ronan, MT.

Everything is going to work out, perfectly, I thought. Here in Lake County, several schools were interested in finding fresh, local carrots for Farm to School month. Did you catch that, several schools? I was psyched at the chance to engage schools in cooperative purchasing, because by increasing volume, the price would drop correspondingly, according to basic principles of economics.  

Affordable, local carrots? Sounds great to me!

So at 2:00 in a Missoula parking lot, a truck-load of 1,000 pounds of carrots from the Cascade Colony would meet up with a delivery truck from Western Montana Growers Cooperative. The delivery driver would simply slide the pallet from truck A to truck B, drive up to Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center and unload the pallet in the warehouse.

Then the phone rang, like a shrill alarm clock waking me from my happy dream. The two delivery trucks were different heights, and therefore did not line up to move the palette. The delivery driver from WMGC would have to hand-load each 50lb bag of carrots. This would add an extra $3 per 50lbs to the cost of the product. I know that this seems like a mere 6 cents per pound, but to a food service director even pennies will break the budget.

Will all of our Farm to School Month activities be derailed by the difference of 18 inches between truck beds? I worried.

Prior to my work as a MTCC VISTA with FoodCorps, I was under the assumption that the biggest obstacle for schools to buy healthy, locally-grown foods was price. It’s an unfortunate but often true fact that purchasing locally grown items is more expensive than purchasing through the big national providers. But in reality, from start to finish, high quality food takes high quality effort.

The first challenge is to identify what items are in season and what the availability is. Is there a farmer with 500 pounds of cabbage? How does it get to the school?

Then there’s labor. While many schools wanted to serve winter squash during Farm to School month, practically no cafeteria had the staff time to cut up something as labor intensive as butternut squash.

And then there's the unexpected obstacles, like the difference in sizes of truck beds.

My job to to help all the partners work through each of these challenges, one by one, until finally, with enough sweat--and, okay, maybe a few tears—we can get fresh healthy food to kids who need it. And it's working! During Farm to School month, Flathead-area schools served carrots, parsnips, beets, squash, and grass-fed beef in delicious menu offerings including stuffed bell peppers and homemade meatballs with local pasta.

But even on the delicious school meal days, I was reminded that my job extends beyond just getting the food to the schools, and into getting the food into kids' bellies. Sure, lots of kids devoured the local, tasty meals. AND, I witnessed enough servings of squash in the trash can to get re-inspired to work on the educational aspects of Farm to School, like cooking classes, taste tests, and school gardens.

At least I'm no longer worried about what to do in the winter!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Natasha Hegmann on Work and Place

Natasha Hegmann is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Ennis, MT.

Sure, I have an office, with its requisite desk, computer, printer, and file folders. But most of my days are spent in Ennis Schools elementary classrooms, school board meetings, the lunchroom, the Madison Farm to Fork greenhouse, the community garden, and even across the street, sipping coffee and chatting up school garden ideas with community leaders.

Digging the Office
I have an office, but my community is my place of work.

And over just the past two weeks, my community has grown exponentially. At the annual meeting of the Alternative Energy Resources Organization in Lakeside, I ate yak stew and exchanged ideas with farmers from Whitefish and schoolteachers in Helena and sustainable energy advocates in Great Falls. We drank locally-roasted, fair-trade coffee and brainstormed how to better insulate our greenhouses, or better communicate with high-schoolers, or better market lesser-known crops that are healthy for people and the planet. We watched the sun rise over Flathead Lake, and exchanged email addresses, and promised to visit.

And my community became Montana. 

Less than a week later, I boarded an airplane for Oakland, California, and headed to the 15th Annual Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) Conference. At the opening reception, surrounded by hundreds of community leaders and food sovereignty advocates from across the nation, I felt for a moment as though I’d lost my footing. At the AERO annual meeting, the commonalities were somewhat obvious, in that we shared the same state, geography, and climate. But what did I have in common with family practitioners in Kansas, or young urban gardeners from Massachusetts?

Making Tabouleh in Oakland
Soon, though, I listened to one of the founding members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers speak about organizing for fair food and working conditions in Florida, and I recognized the passion as similar to my own. I was in the right place. The next five days passed in a blur as I shared ideas for measuring the successfulness of Farm to School programs with National Farm to School Network leaders; and even cooked fresh food and acquired tools for developing seasonal, cyclical school meal plans with the Center for Ecoliteracy.

Along with the three other Montana FoodCorps volunteers who attended, I realized that even though our work of FoodCorps is new and innovative, it’s not isolated or unsupported. Elementary schools in Berkeley, CA have had functional school gardens for over 10 years – Ennis schools just approved a site for our school garden last week. Mentors and models, collaborators and peers, need not be restrained by geography.

And my community continues to grow.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Calling for new Montana FoodCorps host sites!

Does your community want to serve healthy, locally-grown food in schools? Create or expand school gardens? Develop and implement hands-on nutrition education programs in classrooms?

Do you just need the people-power to help you get it done?

If so, apply now to host a FoodCorps member beginning in August of 2012!

Learn more about the application process.

Ready to apply? Download application form.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Alyssa Charney Tallies the Benefits of Local Food in Red Lodge Schools

Alyssa Charney is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Red Lodge, MT.

Sunrise was still a few hours away as I unloaded butternut squash, onions, and cherry tomatoes from my car and into the school where I met our food service director. A few minutes later local chef Eric Trager knocked on the cafeteria window. I ran out to help him with the lasagna sheets he had made from scratch over the weekend. Before I could even set down decorations and menus, volunteers were chopping carrots, peeling cucumbers, and rinsing cilantro.

This early morning was the beginning of a “Montana Made Meal” celebration in Red Lodge, where I am serving as a Montana FoodCorps member with the Red Lodge
Food Partnership Council. Here at the base of the Beartooth Mountains, Red Lodge continues to amaze me with its abundant supply of enthusiasm and involvement. This meal was no exception.
  • 60 more students and faculty than usually purchase school lunch decided to buy lunch after learning of the meal.
  • 20 pounds of freshly harvested greens arrived from a greenhouse just fifteen miles away, a few hours before lunch.
  • 2 local farmers not only shared their harvest, but also their knowledge, joining us for the day and speaking with each K-12 lunch.
  • 1 entire meal made from food that was grown or raised in Montana
While the numbers are exciting, I was equally happy to hear questions from the students who I’ve been working with on farm field trips, planting indoor garden boxes, and healthy food taste tests.
“Are there any lentils in this lunch?”
“Is the cheese from Montana?”
“How long did it take to grow the squash and apples for this soup?“
Sure, not all of the students loved every new taste, I was glad that they were talking and thinking about where the ingredients came from.
Before I got swept away by my own excitement, though, I forced myself to think back to the most important word of all.
How can we make sure this local meal can be replicated and sustained in the schools? How can we sustain the health of our community? And what about the sustainability of the land that feeds us?
I should mention that since arriving in Red Lodge it’s been impossible for me to leave the farmers’ market or a local farm without bags of cucumbers, boxes of potatoes, or arms full with squash that someone wants to donate to the school.
Red Lodge students enjoy lunch with the farmers who grew it (Dick Espenschield and Bonnie Martinell)
And that’s incredible. It’s incredible that producers throughout the region also believe in growing healthy kids and want to help. But in order to illustrate the feasibility and the sustainability of this work, we have to show that buying local is possible with a school food budget. Not only with donations.
So as Kimberly, our food service director, and I finally sat down to enjoy some lasagna, squash apple soup, and salad after the meal, we talked about how to start coordinating with local farmers as they plan for what they’ll plant next season. We want these meals to continue, and we want them to work for the school AND the farmers. As we moved on to dessert, pumpkin bread pudding, our discussion progressed to plans for a school garden, the land for which the city council approved just last week. Planning for a healthy, sustainable future never tasted so sweet.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Undaunted: Montana FoodCorps’ Anina Estrem Plants Seeds in Rosebud…in October

Anina Estrem, a Communities in Action AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team at the Rosebud-Treasure County Extension, shares blog eight in our weekly series of updates directly from Montana FoodCorps members.

First there were seven, then eighteen, then thirty-six, now forty-one! Tucked away in the Rosebud school greenhouse, five tiny tomato plants have just emerged from the tray planted by the 8th graders over a week ago to join those of other classes. The Rosebud 8th graders has been getting annoyed that their plants hadn’t sprouted while the 7th graders’ were flourishing, and even I was beginning to worry about what we might have done wrong. But now almost all of the students who planted seeds have a little speck of green growing in their pot, which collectively represent Rosebud’s new school garden! October’s a strange time to be starting a garden, but I was not willing to let our ideas or enthusiasm stagnate over the long winter. Instead, students have installed heaters, fans and lights in the greenhouse so our plants will stay cozy even when it’s bitterly cold outside.
The small town of Rosebud is just west of Forsyth, where I am serving with the Rosebud-Treasure County Extension Office. Together, Rosebud and Treasure Counties encompass an enormous stretch of land and a population of nearly 9,000 people. While most of this land is agriculture, the majority of crops are commodity-scale grains, so finding enough local, fresh food to feed even this sparse population is a truly ambitious endeavor.
My service area also extends thirty miles west of Forsyth to Hysham, where finding food (local or not) is an even bigger challenge. Hysham has been without a grocery store for three years, and residents drive to Forsyth or the seventy miles to Billings for their shopping. To try and change this, a group of residents and I are exploring the idea of a cooperative grocery store, an enormous—at times overwhelming—project. Still, it may make all the difference for a town where the average age is increasing, while the population numbers are decreasing. We hope that a cooperative store which depends upon the support and labor of the community will not only provide better access to high-quality food, but also increase economic opportunities so that we can keep both dollars and residents in the area.
The biggest challenge for both of these projects is that Eastern Montana is a tough place to make a living, and for many residents, local food is not the top concern: there is barely enough time to do the shopping as it is. So while my specific FoodCorps goals are to build a school garden in Rosebud, launch a Farm to School program, and conduct hands-on nutrition education with the kids, my bigger mission in these communities is to offer the model of local food as a way not only to improve the health of individual, but also entire communities.
Proving that this is possible may be the hardest part of the process, but it is also the most rewarding. The plants for Rosebud’s school garden may be still be miniscule, but right now four trays planted by 7th-10th graders span the wall of the greenhouse that the students cleaned out earlier this fall, and soon Gardener’s Delight, Super Sweet, Italian Ice, and Little Girl Hybrid Cherry tomatoes will grace the garden, and eventually the cafeteria!
In my year here the Rosebud garden may only provide the cafeteria with a meal’s worth of vegetables, and the Hysham grocery store may take years to get off the ground. Still, in a region with approximately 2 people per square mile, I’ve already learned that every effort counts for double. The key is to start small, like Rosebud’s tomato sprouts, and with patience and cultivation, I’m confident we’ll see fruit.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Garbanzos, Garlic, and Glendive

Anne McHale is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Glendive, MT.

Anne McHale, serving with Glendive's Community GATE, shares blog seven in our weekly series of updates directly from Montana FoodCorps members.The second-grader’s face went from scrunched-up skepticism to wide-eyed excitement when I explained the orange scoop between her corn dog and nachos was “a lot like pumpkin.” Actually, the conversation went like this:
“Did you try some squash?”
“How come?”
“Don’t you like pumpkin?”
(vigorous nodding, followed by brief thoughtful reflection and then a miniscule taste of the bright orange squash)

This was the first day of Farm to School Month, and as a Montana FoodCorps member serving in Glendive, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find the district administration receptive but realistic in recognizing the challenges to sourcing school food locally. In this fiercely proud and sparsely populated corner of the state, the messages of food independence, and healthy bodies, healthy economies resonate. Most Glendivians are few, if any, generations removed from agriculture, making it much easier to tout the benefits of a farm-fresh diet.

Despite a genuine understanding of the value of “local,” the district administration and kitchen staff have valid concerns: Will the kids eat it? Do staff have time to prepare food from raw ingredients? And what will we have to cut from the budget to make it happen?

Still, inspired by state and national coverage of Farm-to-School Month celebrations, we decided to tackle the challenges and planned local food events in October. The schools were interested in trying local squash, local apples, hummus made from local garbanzo beans and local garlic, and Montana-made lentil burgers from Mission Mountain. It quickly became evident what all we’re up against and what’s at stake.

We pieced together 100 lbs of buttercup, butternut and a locally dubbed “green squash” requiring multiple trips to the farmer’s markets in town. After hours of hard, hot volunteer labor in the Dawson County High School kitchen it was defeating to see that we had about half of what was needed to fulfill the federal vegetable requirements. It meant a last-minute raid of the local-food store, an unscheduled trip out to a sympathetic farm and snatching the prize pumpkin off my own front stoop. No squash within a 50 mile radius was safe save four pretty enough to act as “display squash” on each of the lunch lines.

For the most part, the K-2 kids at Jefferson School where I spent lunch weren’t completely crazy about the “whipped squash” that was prepared with butter. However, nearly all the kids could be convinced to try the squash when it was likened to pumpkin, with which many are familiar. The students I talked to who were enthusiastic about the vegetable serving offered interesting insights to the psychology of healthy eating: from what I could gather, members of the clean plate club came from families who regularly prepared squash in some form.

While for some folks this lack of familiarity with local foods is an argument against trying them in schools, for me as a FoodCorps member the gap in education is the primary motivation. It’s a learning process for everyone involved, myself definitely included. If we had layered brown sugar on the squash would it have been a bigger hit? Probably. Is that a compromise we want to make? We’ll do squash again, and my bet is that more kids will try it each time, regardless of the added sugar. For FoodCorps members as for students, the cafeteria is an important classroom.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Montana FoodCorps Member Becky Naab Rocks Out with Root Vegetables

Becky Naab, a PRC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team with the Livingston School District's Farm to School Program, shares blog six in our weekly series of updates directly from Montana FoodCorps members.

Twenty second graders burst into rowdy applause as I entered the classroom. I felt like a rock star, but instead of an electric guitar, I wielded garden-fresh carrots, radishes, potatoes, parsnips and turnips.

Of course, even a rock star doesn’t build a fan base overnight, and I’ve been lucky that I’ve already had the chance to work with each of the five second grade classrooms in the Livingston School District once a week since the first day of school. For me, the fact that I have this direct time in the classroom is pretty powerful, because I get to spend 25 minutes every day teaching kids about food, where it comes from, and why it’s good to eat healthy, and locally-grown.

Sometimes I feel like I’m training mini FoodCorps volunteers. But what really gets me excited is the fact that every week, every single second grader in Livingston has math, science, reading, gym, art, music, and FARM TO SCHOOL!

Our lessons started at the beginning by planting radish seeds in window boxes. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens with food production, no real radishes grew. The kids had gotten attached though, so we went them home with the seedlings for a little extra TLC.

The good news is that we did have radishes from a local farmer, which I sliced up and brought to class as part of a root vegetable taste-testing extravaganza.

Here’s how it works

Each taste test consists of the five root vegetables I mentioned before: carrots, potatoes, turnips, parsnips, and the almighty radish. After a quick lesson on what root vegetables are, students try bite-sized pieces of each one. Then they record their preference by circling a smiley face if they like what they tried, a confused face if they weren’t sure how they feel, and a sad face if they didn’t like it.

The results are really interesting. Carrots seem to be a unanimous favorite (as expected). More surprisingly, parsnips seem to beat out potatoes. The radishes and turnips get a mixed review. The greatest thing about these tests is that the kids aren’t scared to give the veggies a try, even if they’ve never had them before—yet another example of how kids will eat vegetables if presented in the right way.

While the taste tests have been successful, the real success will be if the kids pick out a parsnip over peanut M&Ms at the grocery store, or better yet, actually plant them in their family gardens. In the meantime, though, I’m confident that they’ll at least enjoy the healthy vegetables that the cafeterias will serve on our October 24th all-Montana meal day. And get this: the theme is “Montana Food Rocks!”

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Finding Farm to School has Legs (for Dancing)

Katie Wheeler is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Kalispell, MT.  Today Katie, serving with Flathead Valley Community College's Farm to School Program, shares blog five in our weekly series of updates directly from Montana FoodCorps members.

Last week, I received the greatest call to-date during my service as a Montana FoodCorps member working with Flathead Valley Community College’s Farm to School program. On the line was Jennifer Montague, the Kalispell Food Services Director. “I didn’t know who else to call,” she said. “I couldn’t think of anyone else that would be excited by this.”
I straightened my back and pressed the phone close to my ear. What could it be? I wondered.
For the past three months, I’d been collaborating with Jennifer to source local produce for the Fresh Fruits and Vegetable Snack Program. In Kalispell, four different elementary schools qualify for this federal program which aims to get extra servings of healthy food into the bellies of kids in schools where 50% or more of the students are from low-income families.
But Jennifer and I had already celebrated the enthusiastic response to the fresh sliced cucumbers, Dixon melons, and fresh Flathead cherries, that we’d been serving from the Western Montana Growers Cooperative. Teachers had flagged us down in the halls to tell us that their young students were gobbling up the flavorful produce, which was not the case with the “slimy” prepackaged fruits and vegetables of previous years.
So I wondered, what new update had Jennifer so excited?
“The fruits and veggies that we’ve procured locally have been cheaper than those bought from [a national food service company that will remain nameless].”
My mouth fell open.
You see, one of the top concerns for those of us working on Farm to School is whether the local food will be too expensive, a factor that could make or break a nascent program such as ours.
But the more I’ve gotten to know people here in Montana, the more I’ve really wanted Farm to School to succeed. “Supporting local farmers” and “strengthening local communities” is no longer an abstract concept. For example, at a recent FoodCorps training, I met Jacob and Courtney, farmers who marry modern ecological principals with the values of their grandparents. My brother’s friend Steffen drives the truck for the Western Montana Growers Cooperative in Arlee. And my neighbor has introduced me to her friend Casey, who grows lentils and barley for the lentil burger the FoodCorps team is testing out in our schools this month.
Casey Bailey takes a break from growing crops for kids.
The list goes on: A chef in Whitefish. Board members for Nourish the Flathead. A co-founder of a natural foods company. I’ve listened to them all talk with such great passion about creating more local, sustainable and healthy food systems, and it’s warmed my heart to know I am a part of something so much larger.
But I’ve also worried about whether the Farm to School program I’m working on could really be an asset to this movement—to them.
Montana is big geographically, but the people are closely connected.
So Jennifer was right to expect that I would share her enthusiasm for what might seem to others like a minor budget detail.
“Awesome!” I said into the phone. Okay, maybe I even shouted. I smiled so hard my cheeks hurt. I hung up the phone and did a little dance around the office.
Ladies and gentleman, that’s it, I thought, I’m throwing in the towel—my work here is done. How can it get better than this?
But after a few more minutes of celebration, I sat back down to work. I believe that school food can, and will, get even better than this. And, like my new friends and colleagues working on Montana-based food systems, I’ll keep working hard to make it so.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lea Howe Begins the Conversation with Cookies

Lea Howe, an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team with Boulder's 21st Century Learning, shares blog four in our weekly series of updates directly from Montana FoodCorps members.

I checked my watch: 1:00 a.m. The kitchen of Boulder Elementary School still smelled of cinnamon and ginger as I sprayed the last bit of cookie dough from an industrial metal tray. During tomorrow’s farmers market, these Heart Healthy Cookies, I hoped, would lure people into conversations about whole foods, the importance of supporting local agriculture and, of course, provide a chance to share simple, healthy, delicious recipes.

As a Montana FoodCorps member serving with Boulder’s 21st Century Learning Program, it’s the conversations, not the cookies, that I’m most interested in. Since I’m a newcomer to this tightly-knit community, I’ve been anxious about making as positive and unobtrusive a first impression as possible. But how does one begin a conversation about broken food systems that have resulted in rampant diet-related disease, job loss, ravaged ecosystems, and a world where people no longer know their farmers nor question the source of their food? It’s not uplifting material, to say the least, and I certainly had no desire to be only the harbinger of bad news.
Beginning a conversation can be like pulling hen’s teeth.

For that reason, over the past few months I’ve been honing the art of ‘beginning a conversation.’ I’ve spent much of my time getting a lay of the land, learning what makes this little town of Boulder “tick.” I observe my surroundings. I participate in as many events and local activities as possible. I ask questions. (A lot of questions.) And I listen. I’ve even picked up the “Two-Step.”

But it was during a late night baking spree at my house, when sweet smells wafting from the oven had beckoned the rest of my housemates into lively conversations, that it hit me. COMFORT FOOD. Food that makes people feel at ease – the x-factor that makes food such a powerful tool for social change.

Enter the Heart Healthy Cookies project. Many 21st Century Summer Program elementary school students were already growing and harvesting ingredients in the school gardens. So why don’t we walk over to the school kitchen to make—what else—cookies?

Now, the Heart Healthy Cookie menu has evolved to include items such as Banana-Sweetened Montana-Oat Chocolate Chip Cookies, Community Garden Grown Carrot and Zucchini Date Muffins, Backyard Applesauce-Sweetened Ginger Molasses Cookies, and Montana Oat and Nut Bars with dried Flathead Cherries.

The kids then help sell the cookies at the farmers market. It’s amazing to hear them talk with pride about the nutritious benefits of whole grains, or the way that seasonal cherries can make your cheeks pucker. Since we never use more than a dozen ingredients in any baked good, and all the ingredients are easy to pronounce, even an eight year old can be a confident messenger.

At the same time, this simple project translates to children that are taking stewardship roles in the growing and harvesting processes, learning the dying craft of culinary arts, and re-acquiring taste buds for healthier, wholesome foods. Students, teachers, parents, locals are all invested, sparking discussions about other meaningful changes we might make in our food system—changes that taste good, too.

Sure, sometimes I find myself staying up late to finish up the baking after the kids have gone home, but, in some ways, I actually enjoy the methodical measuring and mixing, stirring and scraping--a moment of quiet to reflect on the week’s whirlwind of conversations, and to look forward to the ones to come.

Try it yourself!

Zucchini Date Muffins
(Muffins are vegan, soy free, and can be gluten-free if you substitute GF flour)
Yields:12 muffins
  • 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (or substitute with all-purpose GF flour, or regular all-purpose flour)

  • 2 tsp. baking powder

  • 1 tsp. baking soda

  • 1/4 tsp. ginger

  • 1 tsp. cinnamon

  • 1/4 tsp. salt

  • 1/2 cup applesauce

  • 1/4 cup coconut or olive oil

  • 1/4 cup almond milk

  • 1/3 cup sucanat or sugar (this will make the muffins moderately sweet; use 1/2 cup for sweeter muffins, but keep in mind that the dates will add sweetness too)

  • 1 1/4 cup shredded zucchini

  • 2/3 cup chopped dates, tossed in a little flour so that they don’t clump together
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2) Mix all dry ingredients (save sugar) in a large bowl.
3) Whisk together applesauce, oil, milk, and sucanat, and pour them into the dry ingredients.
4) Fold ingredients together till just mixed, and then fold in the zucchini and dates.
5) Pour batter into muffin tins and bake until golden brown — about 12-15 minutes.
*From, a nutrition blog with lots of delicious, healthy recipes.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ode to Dillon: Leah Grunzke on Self-Sufficiency, Rural Fridays, and New Beginnings

Leah Grunzke, an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team at UM Western in Dillon, shares blog three in our weekly series of updates directly from Montana FoodCorps members.
Dillon, oh Dillon. Home to bountiful wildlife, a lavish watershed, heart-stirring mountains and a million miles of untold backroads to explore, you’re enough to make an outdoor-lovin’ gal giddy. As a Montana FoodCorps member working to connect UM Western’s Campus Community Garden with Beaverhead county K-12 kids, I’m pleased to be serving in this community of 4,000 or so folks, nearly all of whom seem to share a relaxed, can-do attitude, a hearty work ethic and a resilient pride in their community and their land. In the few months I’ve been here, exploring the possibilities for community gardening and farm-to-school connections, I’ve run into consistently spirited enthusiasm.
How important is buying local to us? Hugely important.
Incorporate new healthy foods curriculum into my jam-packed teaching schedule? Yes ma’am.
Community garden? Of course I want to help! Where do I start?
Dillon’s an easy place to fall in love with.
For many, it’s also a hard place to get by. Cattle and wheat production are the economic mainstays here; hard business to make a go of no matter where you’re at. In the last ten years, the percentage of Beaverhead County kids eligible for free or reduced school lunches jumped from 25 to 35%. A disturbing trend, indeed, but if there’s a silver lining, it’s that hard times are often the catalyst for re-examining how we do things. Montanans are self sufficient by nature, yet we’ve somehow found ourselves exporting the vast majority of food we produce. Despite the fact that Beaverhead County is largely agricultural, 90% or more of the food that we eat comes from out of state. It’s a system that doesn’t work for producers or eaters. Fortunately, in Dillon and across Montana, there is a growing movement of people who are creating a different system—learning how to grow more food (not just commodities), buying more locally-produced food, and teaching kids the value of healthy eating. You can feel the cycle of self-sufficiency coming back around.
As a FoodCorps member, I’m plugging into this movement through UM Western’s Campus Community Garden. Thanks to dedicated professors, enthusiastic volunteers, supportive administration and a totally awesome Facilities Services staff, the garden is just two seasons old, but already a flourishing community resource with over 20 plots, two greenhouses and a composting system for the campus cafeteria waste. Thanks largely to the efforts of Energy Corps member Tom Wagenknecht, a new passive solar greenhouse, complete with solar panels and a wind turbine, will provide year-round growing space. My job is to use this garden as an outdoor classroom and demonstration site to teach students and the community about growing and eating sustainably produced food.
One of the ways we’ll do this is through a unique program called Rural Fridays. Each fall and spring, kids from one- and two-room schoolhouses throughout Beaverhead and Madison counties are bussed into UM Western every Friday for six weeks to learn social sciences, language arts, music, theater and more. Education majors design the curriculum and teach the students. The theme for this fall’s Rural Fridays program is “Sustainable Agriculture,” and the classroom is the campus garden. Through this single program we’re not only reaching kids throughout our region, but also training a new force of educators who know first-hand the benefits of incorporating school gardens into the classroom. In a separate project, Dillon Middle School students will also be starting their school year at the garden, harvesting produce for lunches at a local retirement home. UM Western Nutrition students will follow this up with classroom visits throughout the year. One of the things I love about the local food movement is the way it can bring together otherwise disparate groups of people—fifth graders and college students and senior citizens and ranchers and home gardeners and college professors—to make our big valley a bit smaller.
With the pinch of fall in the air, the energy these school projects bring to the garden is picking up (we only have a couple weeks left!!), even as the season is winding down. Last week the community came together for a garden inauguration party to celebrate the tremendous momentum that’s behind pulling the Campus Community Garden together. Blue Armstrong sang a song of dedication; Roger Dunsmore, Jenni Fallein and Missoula’s Josh Slotnik read farming poetry that made us laugh and cry. As smoke from the Saddle fire hung over the sunset, nearly 100 neighbors connected in shared gratitude for the work behind us, and anticipation of the efforts yet to come. It was a lovely night, and a great beginning.