Flavors: Farm to School of Park County's Farm Fresh Fridays
Fresh change is taking place in Livingston, Montana.
Farm to School of Park County is “placing healthy, local and sustainable food on the plates and minds of all Park County school children and their families.”
Executive director Rachael Jones was hired by the school district in 2015 to "resurrect a flagging farm-to-school program," she recalls.
"It was school based at the time. When I came in there was about $16,000 left of a USDA implementation grant that supported my position and ever since then, we have been growing gardens and building relationships with the 'Lunch Ladies' and the food producers, and developing curriculum to teach kids where our food comes from and why that does matter to them.”
As a fifth-generation Montanan, Jones says the work is "near and dear" to her heart.
"I want to see kids being fed well and I am fed up with the status quo of school meals, and the poor nutrition in schools," she said. "It is high time that we show this community, and the rest of the state, and hopefully the country that school food reform is possible even in rural Montana.”
That was the impetus behind starting Farm Fresh Fridays.
"The nation is in an interesting point of history regarding the national school lunch program," Jones said.
Jones says about half of students in kindergarten through 12th grade rely on school meals for their daily nutrition. The universal free school meals that started during the pandemic have been extended for the whole school year, giving Farm to School Park County a chance to "market meals to increase participation," Jones said.
"We’re doing that in a few ways, primarily through offering a meal program that is enticing to kids and families," she said. "We want them to know that we’re working very hard to increase the nutritional quality and the tastiness, and the eye appeal of the menu items, and at the same time, as they continue to participate in the meal, the value of the meal is reimbursed to the school district.”
Jones does a lot of reaching out to producers, ranchers and farmers.
“I cold-call them and ask them for produce or whatever food item they have to offer," she said. "I've been known to show up at a stock growers association meeting. For the last five years, we have been enjoying a relationship with Felton Angus Ranch.”
On a recent Farm Fresh Friday, the fourth of the school year, the menu consists of a turkey salad wrap, wheat berry veggie salad, apple carrot bars, and a cheese stick.
“They are really filling," junior Kady Epperson said of the meal. "It makes you feel energized for the rest of the school day. It doesn’t make you feel greasy and gross and tired.”
Senior James Wade Estes is a fan of the wrap, a spinach tortilla encasing chunks of turkey with grapes.
"It’s sweet but still tangy,” he said.
The meal, featuring scratch-cooked recipes using school-grown produce, was developed by restaurateur, caterer and cookbook author Carole Sullivan, who is fulfilling the mission of the Farm to School of Park County program: “To give Park County children a strong, healthy start at school and in life, and to work within local schools to provide early exposure to nutritious foods and a blueprint for healthy eating that lasts a lifetime.”
The meal was executed by several women who have been affectionately named the “Lunch Ladies": Food Service director Michele Carter, Leslie Ammerman and Tina Mitchell.
"Those women are heroes as they produce at least 700 to 800 lunches every day, 300 to 400 breakfast every day in a matter of hours," Jones said. "They’ve been game for all of the Farm to School shenanigans that we have been bringing to the table, literally.”
Farm to School of Park County is now cultivating 47 garden beds and two greenhouses across five schools with an 1/8 acre plot at the Lincoln School Farm built in 2017. The efforts have harvested 30 types of fruits and vegetables, and 2,200 pounds of food for use in the schools.
Seven different cultivation techniques are being implemented: aquaponics, green house, hügelkultur (a raised garden bed that is built from the bottom up with logs, sticks and branches, wood chips, grass clippings, manure, leaves, food scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds and everything else that can be put into a compost pile), hydroponics, permaculture, raised beds and row crops.
“The first couple of years was working on establishing the layout and how we were going to grow here, and how we were going to manage the weeds," said garden manager Megan Randall. After four years, “We just hit the 2,000-pound mark at how much produce we have grown.”
With seven years of production scale farming in Massachusetts and Montana, Randall says she joined Farm to School two years ago because she wanted to continue growing food.
"That’s really important to me, and I really love it," she said. "I have found a way to do it and also include education work and working with students.”
Perennials and apple trees have been planted to keep the weeds down. Crops chosen for planting include frost-hardy crops. Carrots are usually planted in May and in June, "we plant our frost sensitive plants – summer squash and winter squash," Randall explained.
For food service, she planted specifically beets, kale, potatoes and garlic while tomatoes and basil grew in the small green house on the Lincoln School site.
Food service director Michele Carter says the program is working on a six-week rotation for Farm Fresh Friday.
"We are able to look ahead on what we will be needing," she said. "Some of the produce we are harvesting here we’re able to keep refrigerated and prep. Some, we can process and freeze, and we can use it at a later week.”
Offering fresh versus processed foods does tend to cost more, but, Carter says, in the long run it's worth it.
"Our administration knows that, and they are very supportive of our programming, and what we are doing," she said. "and very of the mindset of just feeding the children.”