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.