Have You Hugged Your Food Service Director Today?

Lindsay Howard, an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team at Lake County Community Development Corporation’s Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center, shares blog two in our weekly series of updates directly from Montana FoodCorps members. 

The three Sysco representatives arrived half an hour early for the meeting. Yikes! I still had lentil burgers to prepare, a sign-up sheet to pull together, and flip charts to hang. I pointed them to the conference room, and hurried my pace. In another few minutes would arrive a rep from the Western Montana Growers Cooperative, as well as the school food service directors from Ronan, Kalispell, Polson, St. Ignatius, and Two Eagle Rivers School (a private tribal school), and I needed to be ready.
As a Montana FoodCorps member serving with Lake County Community Development Corporation’s Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center (a non-profit local food processing facility), my job is to form relationships between farmers and food service directors in order to get more locally-grown food into the schools. The hope is that such relationships will open up new markets for local farmers, while also improving access to healthy foods for kids. In each of the schools that I serve, more than 50% are from low-income families and qualify for the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch Program. That means Farm to School programs here are especially important, since research shows that low-income children suffer disproportionately from diet-related diseases.
Back in the conference room, we went through introductions, reviewed the agenda, and got to work. Immediately, I was blown-away by the “can-do” attitude of all in attendance. The thing is, serving local food in schools may be a straight-forward idea, but it’s a challenging reality. School food service directors have less than $1.00 per student per meal to spend on food, must follow strict nutrition guidelines from USDA, even stricter food safety guidelines, and must please the palettes of a notoriously picky clientele. Meanwhile, local farmers work overtime growing food, usually balancing outside jobs for luxuries like health insurance, and don’t necessarily have time to figure out the specific do’s and don’ts for selling to institutions like public schools.
On top of that, neither farmers nor food service directors have time to do things like wash and chop the carrots or cucumbers so that they are ready to eat by kids, which means another organization, like Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center has to step in to fill that gap, also no small feat. And then, how do we get the products from farm to processor to table? Enter the need for Sysco, with its own regulatory needs and requirements. But here we all were, on a crisp fall day just after school let out, each ready to do our part to create a healthy future for us all.

There were, of course, snacks. Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center is working hard to produce a lentil burger made from all Montana ingredients–lentils, oats, veggies, flaxseed, and eggs—which could be a perfect entrée for area-schools: healthy, affordable, easy-to-prepare, and kid-friendly. Lena, the food service director from Two Eagle River Schools said, “My kids will love the chipotle flavor – they can’t get enough hot sauce. This is perfect!” Other directors thought that the ranch flavor would work better for them. Regardless, there was something for everyone!

The response was so positive that one of the first collaborative decisions for our group was to feature the all-Montana lentil burger at each of the schools as one of October’s Farm to School Month activities. Yes! I checked this first action item off my list.
Building on this positive decision, I then nervously asked the bigger question: would each school also be willing to serve all-Montana meals on the first-ever national Food Day, October 24? As each food service director nodded an emphatic yes, I almost jumped out of my seat to hug each one of them! I just simply could not believe they were so willing to take on extra work in order to support local food and child nutrition.
In all the excitement, I even found myself volunteering to help create the Montana meal-day menus. Gulp. It’s true, I’ve been to culinary school, but school meals are a whole different ball game. I’m nervous, but excited by the challenge: will it be roasted root vegetables with Montana beef stroganoff and pasta from Polson’s Country Pasta? Or chili made with local beans and beef served with scratch-baked rolls? Either way, I’ve got my work cut out for me. Fortunately, after this meeting, I can at least rest assured that I don’t have to go it alone!
Left to right: Dave Prather, Western Montana Growers Cooperative; Katie Wheeler, MT FoodCorps, and Lindsay Howard, blog author and MT FoodCorps