FoodCorps’ Impact on Schools in Kalispell, Montana

Food service director, Jenny Montague discusses relationships and results

  • Hero Stories
  • August 26, 2015
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By: Jenny Montague

As I begin another school year as food service director in Kalispell, Montana, I can’t help but wonder if my enthusiasm, anticipation, and anxiety aren’t exactly the same emotions the students are feeling as they await the return to their classrooms. We all share high hopes of having the best year yet. We are all feeling rested, hopeful, and ready, and the obstacles that seemed impossible last May seem to have been melted by the summer sun. 

Late summer is an especially encouraging time for a food service director in a northern climate. The gardens beds are overflowing with summer vegetables and herbs, and the apples and pears are ripening across the valley. If nothing else, the influx of summer squash and students means we need to hit the ground running!

One of the main reasons that I am so optimistic about this school year is that I have complete confidence in my food service team, which includes 48 food service professionals and several key community partnerships. This is not to say that we can’t all make improvements in our skills and abilities, but I have faith in our commitment to our students and our mission to be community-based. 

We will also be welcoming our third FoodCorps service member this year, Whitney Pratt. Both of our previous service members have worked with us for two continuous years; they have shaped the image of our program and accelerated our commitment to purchasing locally and connecting our students with good food.

A Look Back

In 1950, 70% of the food that Montanans ate was produced in Montana. Today, only 10% of the food we consume is grown and raised in state. I have always known that this trend could be reversed. Looking back, I realize it was FoodCorps that helped shape my sense of what is possible for institutional food service and the impact we can make on our local economies.  

When I attended graduate school to study nutrition and sustainable food systems at Montana State University in Bozeman, I studied alongside two of the original FoodCorps service members who were part of the pilot program in 2009.  The goal of the FoodCorps program is to place AmeriCorps service members in low-resource communities in order to connect kids with real food so they can grow up healthy. Through nutrition education in the classroom, access to healthy local food in the cafeteria, and engagement in the school garden, service members are helping young people think more thoughtfully about what is on their plate, and to make healthy eating exciting and delicious.  

FoodCorps’ Impact

From the beginning, I knew I needed to have a FoodCorps member at my side to engender the kinds of revolutionary changes I wanted for our schools and community. Some of the progress that wouldn’t have been possible without them includes building strong relationships with local farmers, ranchers, and processors. We try to shape our menus to fit Montana’s agricultural staples and seasons, and we are participating in a statewide Harvest of the Month pilot program to promote beef, whole grain, lentils, apples, and storage crops on our lunch lines.  

Our first service member, Katie Wheeler, helped us switch to serving beef that is raised and processed in Montana; this was one of our major accomplishments and largest impacts on our agricultural economy in the Flathead. We have also collaborated with a local meat processor, Lower Valley Meats, that sources locally raised cows and provides us with ground beef, patties, and sausages that meet our price and quality specifications. Through this partnership we are able to meet ranchers and inspect the processing facilities, and in some cases provide educational field trips for students. Our partnership with Lower Valley made them eligible for a grant to purchase a new refrigerated delivery vehicle, and now they are able to source meat for five other districts in our region. 

Our commitment to purchasing local beef makes sense for so many reasons—not only are we supporting a sustainable local industry and cutting down on the financial and environmental costs of shipping, but we are providing our students with fresher, more delicious lunches.

Thinking Locally

Our local purchasing has grown from 10% to over 30% of our food budget over three years. One of the questions I often get is “How are you able to make farm-to-school work financially?” My explanation is that menus and traditional purchasing structures need to be re-worked, and that all purchases are a matter of priority. In the future, I believe growing more of our own food will be a part of the solution. 

Last year, FoodCorps service member, Jessica Manly, started a production garden at our new central kitchen. In our first spring, we were able to plant and harvest radishes, greens, and peas for the salad bars at our eight elementary schools before the school year ended. Throughout the summer, tomatoes, raspberries, cucumbers, squash, carrots, and fresh basil brightened the plates of our Free Summer Meals program participants. 

My service members and I have been constantly inspired by the power food has to create strong community. The relationships we’ve made with local farmers, producers, and organizations within our community have created so many links across age, gender, and experience. In addition, the lessons that our service members have taught in the classroom have helped students feel more connected to the food they are eating, making the healthy options more appealing.  

As Jessica reflected on her experience teaching in Kalispell,

“I’ve been fortunate enough to serve with hundreds of students in the gardens during the school day and during after-school garden clubs, exploring the journey of our food from seed to plate, the role of pollinators, Native American planting practices…With my third graders at Hedges Elementary School, we started seeds in the classroom under grow lights, transplanted them into the garden, and eventually harvested lettuce, arugula, spinach and chives for a salad party on the last class of the school year. We only had a couple of thumbs down in the taste test, and every student had the opportunity to nurture a seed and watch it transform into a healthy, delicious meal.”

A Glimpse into the Future

This year is bittersweet, since it may be our last hosting a FoodCorps service member as we transition to a self-sustainable farm-to-school plan in the district. This year will also mark a co-sponsorship with the Center for Restorative Youth Justice (CRYJ). CRYJ works with adjudicated youth, creating the opportunity for dialogue between victims, youth offenders, and community volunteers. 

As Jessica describes it, “Teens are exposed to the hard work, beauty and resiliency of the garden, and they, in turn, help us to manage the weeding, watering, planting and harvesting needs.” We hope that in the future we can continue this relationship with CRYJ and that we will create a permanent garden manager position within our community. 

What I’ve Learned

The changes we have made to our menus and recipes in the last few years have brought so much change and positivity to our community, but not in the ways I expected. Although I know the food itself is healthier and better for us, it is these human interactions that FoodCorps has really helped us to cultivate. 

This sense of community is the basis of the improvement in our overall health and wellness, and something we didn’t even know we were missing. These relationships are what make it so much fun to go back to work each year.

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