Montana Family Farms: Farm to School programs grow themselves

The nationwide movement of taking locally grown foods straight from the farm right to school lunch plates called 'Farm to School' is picking up momentum across Montana due to supply chain issues and staffing shortages caused by Covid-19 implications.

Montana Farm to School Coordinator Aubree Roth said more than 120 schools and afterschool programs across Montana are involved in their procurement, education, and school gardening programs.

According to Montana Farm to School’s 2019-2020 annual report, many schools started gaining interest in Farm to School programs at the beginning of Covid-19, which started unprecedented shifts in education and school meal service. Many schools transformed from traditional lunch options to grab-and-go meals, innovative scratch cooking, and farm-to-school efforts across the state.

During the months of school closure, educators and school nutrition professionals found ways to implement Farm to School, including 'Harvest of the Month' education.

An estimated 21.6% or 49,780 of Montana children faced food insecurity in 2020, meaning they may not know how they will get their next meal, while 42% of Montana students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

Livingston School District’s Food Service Director Michele Carter works with a staff of just under 10 people serving both breakfast and lunch to more than 1,400 kids each day and said the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated their Farm to School efforts.

“For a while, when no children were here at school, we were packing up four to five-hundred sack lunches and breakfasts every day and going out on bus routes with the buses and coolers and delivering them that way,” Carter said.

Now with students in class five days a week, they worked with Park County Farm to School Executive Director Rachael Jones and School Meal Advisor Carole Sullivan on ways to get local ingredients into the kitchen, which has helped them to avoid supply chains issues and made it easier on their small staff.

“At every school, they have a garden, so they’re doing hands-on gardening and planting, they’re doing lessons about nutrition [...] We process them and send them out, and so the kids know that those are their carrots that they grew,” Carter said.

Behind Park High School is a “plant growth center” with a greenhouse full of garden beds and an aquaponics system giving students hands-on opportunities and a front-row seat to learning about pH levels, and the aquaponics and nitrification cycles.

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