Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Not Your Average Steak - The Quest for Local Beef in Boulder

Camille McGoven is a service member in Boulder. 

Boulder, Montana is a special place. There are around 1500 people who call Boulder home. It is small but not so small that I don't see a new face every once in a while at the post office. It’s nestled among towering snow-capped mountains, which not only catch the worst of the snowstorms but provide views I never thought I'd be so lucky to witness just by glancing out of my apartment window. I would bet there are more cows here than people. Okay, no need to bet; we all know, there are more cows than people in Boulder.

At first, I felt like I must be in the Twilight Zone when whole herds of cows would turn and stare at me blankly with their huge brown eyes while I jogged by on my morning run. Then there was the tripping-on-a-rock-and-falling-in-a-cow-pie incident which didn't do much to warm me up to the ever-gawking herds.

Before living in rural Montana, I did not think much about cows as animals on farms. Instead, I thought about beef on my plate. Organic. Antibiotic free. Local. Running through the pastures everyday has given me the opportunity to challenge my view of the food system and think about cows in a whole new way.

There was a period of time in college when I gave up all animal products. I was vegan for about two years because it seemed easier to me as a consumer to just not eat anything that came from an animal than do the research to make sure the producer's standards met my ethics and budget. But I decided I didn’t want to just opt out.  I wanted to do something more that ignore animal products. I wanted to support local, sustainable food producers. I began learning more about which products I did support, and how I could maybe make a difference by encouraging others to take a second look at what they were putting into their bodies, both for their health and the health of the land.

Here in Boulder, cows are constants; they color the stark wintry landscape. Some of the most wonderful people I've gotten to know in Boulder come from ranching families and their deep knowledge of the land and of ranching tradition has opened my eyes. Along with this tradition comes a great sense of pride. I have friends here who hold very strong views on which products they will or will not consume. Some will only eat beef that they have personally raised; not just for economic reasons but because as one friend says, “I know how these cows were raised and I know what they've consumed. I don't know what other cows have eaten or the shots they've had.” These large gentle animals, quite unbeknownst to them, have inspired thoughtful discussion on sustainable practices and ignited passionate views on our food system in this small rural Montana town.

So what can I do about the position of beef in our food system, especially in the context of school food service? The current system makes it challenging for food service directors to choose local beef over its artificially cheap commodity counterpart. There is more to it than just going out and buying beef from a rancher; what about storage? What about a certified processor? What about budget? All are legitimate questions that present unique challenges, but certainly challenges that we can overcome.

We are literally surrounded by cows here in Boulder. But most of these cows are shipped off to feedlots in the Mid West. Things will need to change to make Montana beef easier to access by Montana schools, but that is not to say it is impossible. We’ll need to work with ranchers, processors, and school food directors to make it happen. Some schools are already taking huge strides in accessing local beef. And I hope that Boulder is next.

After six months, I'm happy to say that the cows and I are becoming friends. I've hiked through pastures next to them and they've moo'ed encouragingly at me during my morning runs. Dr. Seuss' “The Lorax” comes to mind when thinking about change. He phrases it perfectly, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.” There are a lot of people that care here in Boulder and slowly but surely it’s getting better.  

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Greetings from Glendive!

Anne McHale is a Service Member in Glendive. 

I’m not going to beat the “February in Montana, just trying to stay sane” drum anymore. Let’s go ahead and all agree on the assumption that the weather outside is frightful and local food, well… scarce. However, that doesn’t mean that we are not being productive and learning and planning for when the frost finally abates!

Who wouldn't want to receive this beautiful
beet-dyed Valentine?

In addition to Spring planning, we’re still having lots of fun with fruits and veggies in the classroom. More specifically, we’ve been experimenting with beets. After all, Valentine’s Day and beets go together like peanut butter and jelly, Bert and Ernie, sugar and spice, you get the picture. There is something inspiring about doing an activity with kids and knowing other FoodCorps members and the students they serve are doing the same thing across the state and around the country.

This Fall, I helped my farmer harvest and store some beets, many of which are still in layers of sand in the cellar, but all of which are too precious to turn into art supplies. Unfortunately, the local grocery stores in Glendive don’t see it fit to carry fresh beets this time of year, so I was forced to purchase canned beets for the deep red juice which we would use as paint and ink for our carved potato stamps. We also supplemented the potato stamps with other veggies that make cool patterns like onion, Napa cabbage and cauliflower. Then we got creative with our Valentine’s messaging with sayings such as, “My heart beets for you.”

A creative beet Valentine from Red Lodge!

In summary, we made a MESS. Another FoodCorps Service Member passed along a tip cut beets into very thin strips when feeding them to kids to make them more appealing. Surprisingly, this worked! (Along with a dash of positive peer pressure.) After all, there are always a few kids in every group who will try (and love!) anything they are fed. One of my keys to success in this work is figuring out who those kids are!
Check out this scrumptious beet salad served for lunch
in Red Lodge in conjunction with beet Valentine activities!

In planning for this year’s garden, there’s one thing I know for sure, and that is many more beets will be planted. Or at least enough to have some squirreled away for next Valentine’s Day!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Many Ways and Places We Learn

Alyssa Charney is a Service Member in Red Lodge.

Whether I’m ready or not, this August I will finish my second year as a FoodCorps member in Red Lodge, and I’ll pack up to head back to Boston, where I’ll be starting graduate school in the fall. 

Cross country skiing at the beautiful
B Bar Ranch!
Though my days as a FoodCorps member have been far from the traditional world of academia, I feel so lucky to have been offered another form of education while serving, which has been just as valuable (and challenging) as the research and lectures I will reintroduce myself to next year. With students, farmers, and community members as my professors, and gardens, farms, and kitchens as my classrooms, I’ve learned more here in Red Lodge than I could have ever imagined.

Last week FoodCorps Montana took our learning and growing to yet another beautiful location for our mid-year training. Service members, site supervisors, and presenters from across the state and country traveled to B Bar Ranch in Emigrant, Montana for four jam-packed days of education and reflection.

Each day brought sessions that provided us with specific skills and resources. For instance, staff from the National Farm to School Network and Montana Team Nutrition helped us understand how the National School Lunch program is funded and what we can do to increase participation in our schools. Erica Curry from FoodCorps National then offered lesson plans to teach fourth graders that tomatoes really do come from rocks. And chef Nick Wiseman of Roadside Food Projects taught us that working with kids and sharp knives in the kitchen is possible and not so scary, after all.  

Aubree Roth with Montana Team Nutrition presents
on increasing school meal participation

Complimenting these sessions, we had workshops that reminded us of the big issues that shape and drive our day-to-day work.  The National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI) led us in a workshop on food justice, the importance of role models, and working with youth. Nancy Matheson, with the Montana Department of Agriculture, gave an excellent presentation on Montana’s food and agriculture heritage, illustrating why the number of farms throughout the state has sharply decreased over the past century.

Erica Curry, FoodCorps National's Training and Professional
Development Manager, teaches hands on food education
activities for all ages!
There were always more questions, ideas, and discussion than we had time for in the sessions, but luckily conversations continued over meals and cross country skiing, and we made plans to collaborate in the coming weeks.

So as I jump back into regular lessons, cooking classes, taste tests, and garden planning, I feel prepared and eager to take on the next six months. For while I haven’t been buried in the books and research of academia, my FoodCorps education has provided me with the resources I need to empower, collaborate, and question, heading in the very direction I want to be going. 

Erin Jackson and Alyssa Charney bid farewell to B Bar's
organic greenhouse.