As a longtime vegetarian, the thought of teaching elementary students that they should eat beef seemed at least intimidating, and borderline nauseating. As part of our Harvest of the Month Program, not only would I be teaching students to eat something that I consciously choose not to, but I would also be encouraging them to eat something that may not be as healthful as other protein options and is not always raised in a sustainable nor environmentally friendly way.
In Montana schools we are piloting a very exciting Harvest of the Month program to encourage children to try new foods and to eat foods that are grown in their own communities here in Montana. Our monthly products have been planned to be unique to Montana, its growing season and agricultural offerings. Beef is our Harvest of the Month product for March, which makes perfect sense because, as one of my first graders so accurately surmised,
“Anything that grows in Montana has to be carnivererer [carnivorous for those of you who don’t speak first grader].”
But then I took a field trip to Lower Valley Processing Co. in Kalispell, MT and fell head over heels. Okay, maybe I didn’t fall in love, but our tour guide Jeremy, whose grandparents still live in the small blue house next to the processing facility and whose children I teach in my service with the North Shore Compact, sure convinced me that all of my students should be into local meat.
Thus began the crusade of one vegetarian FoodCorps service member to get her students (and teachers and parents!) amped about local beef. Local beef is not a new phenomenon in the state, communities, and even schools where I serve.
Robin Vogler, Food Service Director for Somers/Lakeside District #29 Schools has been serving local beef since commodity beef was recalled in 2006.
Robin chooses to serve local beef to protect the health of the children she serves, to support local ranchers and processors, and to reduce transportation costs and emissions. Finding funding to support Robin’s efforts to provide only safe, local beef to her students has also become important in my service as budget constraints has made her choice increasingly difficult.
As part of the Montana Harvest of the Month Pilot Program, for which both Bigfork Elementary and Middle School and Lakeside Elementary School are pilot sites, I was hoping to teach lessons about beef, have one class go on a field trip to Lower Valley Processing, and have some local beef served at least once in the cafeterias. Luckily, the schools where I serve exceeded any expectations I could have had.
There are a few rockstar teachers at both Bigfork Elementary School and Lakeside Elementary School who were undaunted by the idea of bringing their students to a meat processing plant, in fact they were thrilled! So, in early March two 2nd grade classes headed to Lower Valley after a quick lesson about raising beef cattle from me and a role-playing exercise where we learned exactly what happens to grass cud in the four sections of a ruminant’s stomach. I was unsurprised to discover that the students LOVED the field trip and that it was wonderfully educational with the tour guides discussing the importance of school, math and especially hygiene in their every day work.
Later that month, all three 3rd grade classes boarded a bus from Lakeside Elementary School headed to Lower Valley Processing. A few parents had expressed confusion as to why their children were being taken to a meat processing plant as an educational field trip, but those who I spoke with during the field trip were very impressed with Lower Valley and pleased their children had been able to see exactly what they’re eating and where it comes from. I was lucky enough to have worked with these kids since October so most of them could (sort of) explain a storage crop to you, tell you what Harvest of the Month is, and know upon seeing me that there will most likely be food involved. We had had a lesson on beef cattle with these 3rd graders, though many of them already knew most of the information because at least half either raise cattle or have a friend or family member who does, and then we headed out on the field trip.
While Jeremy and Jason took the classes through the different parts of the meat processing center, including the room with hanging carcasses upon the students request, I kept about 20 kids occupied outside. We played “Farmer Says” (imagine a Simon Says/Boot Camp mix), Sunlight Moonlight (a Red light Green light spinoff intended to teach students about circadian rhythms and the importance of rest time for plants), and a game that my students invented: Pig, pig…bacon! Pig, pig bacon was adopted from the traditional Duck, Duck..Goose game except the students were require to say an animal and the type of meat it is processed into so we can eat it. Variations included: Pig, Pig, Bacon; Cow, Cow, Steak; Cow, Cow, Burger, Chicken, Chicken, Chicken; Deer, Deer, Meat; and Dinosaur, Dinosaur, Meat.
While each aspect of this process was fun for both me and the students I teach, the most rewarding part of these Harvest of the Month activities came at Lakeside Elementary School in the cafeteria. The week after we had gone on our field trip, we served hamburgers from Lower Valley at lunch. The 3rd graders were wildly excited. Several ran up to me and exclaimed “I KNOW!” when I told them where the hamburgers came from.
Being able to see the full cycle of where their food comes from to eating it is something we don’t always get to witness, and something that can be particularly difficult for me as an educator to get across for things I cannot grow in our small garden or in containers in the classroom. These field trips had many important benefits: they increased the knowledge of many of my students to their local agriculture roots and also helped them connect what they’re eating to where it comes from. Not to mention the “pepper sticks” they got to cut, package, and bring home from Lower Valley.
Thank you Lower Valley Processing for showing me and my students why they should eat local beef. And thank you to the students I teach for eagerly gathering around as I read “The Story of Agriculture: Beef Cattle,” for giggling their way through pretending to be different parts of a cow’s digestive system, and for getting outrageously excited in the cafeteria when we serve local, Montana grown, raised, and processed foods.
P.S. We taste tested the local hamburgers–students have the choice to say they “tried it,” “liked it,” or “loved it.” Of those who got hot lunch, 177 liked it or loved it (169 loved and 8 liked it) and only one tried it. In fairness to the burgers, the one student who tried it but it wasn’t his favorite actually only had a bun with pickles and cheese..I don’t know if that would be my favorite either.