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.