LIVINGSTON, Mont. – 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 up and send them out and so the kids know that day that those are your carrots that you grew and now they’re on your plate,” 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.

All of those additions bring a new way to learn, create healthy eating habits and even make for some fun outside of the classroom according to Park High School student Ethan Mathias.

“I think that it helps me a lot more to be able to see them when we’re learning about the plants to be able to see them and touch them instead of learning about them on a slideshow, I water all the soil and then I help take down all the tomato plants too,” Mathias said.

This school year, Park County Farm to School tried out "Farm Fresh Fridays" every month and for the month of November, used their ingredient of the month, Butternut Squash, to make Mac & Cheese with a loaded green salad from their greenhouse with honey mustard dressing, pickled beets, fruit bar, pickled beets and an apple.

An added bonus from Farm to School initiatives, the connection between more than 140 local ranchers and farmers teaching and supplying students in their community with fresh meats and around $432,200 of local foods purchased.

Susie Felton of Felton Angus Beef is a longtime rancher in Springdale who has worked with Park County Farm to School to provide local USDA-approved beef to students in the Livingston School District.

“We’ve gone into the classroom and talked to the kids about how their food is produced and where it’s coming from and the process of being a local rancher in Montana... We aren’t so dependent on a shipping container that’s stuck in the port, we’re not dependent on a trucking system, we you know raise cattle clear to beef, they’re processed in the USDA facility and we deliver the beef direct to the school so we cut out that supply chain that’s broken,” Felton said.

There is also a Montana Farm to School Leadership Team consisting of 17 member organizations with a statewide focus on partnerships across the state to build farm-to-school initiatives.

The Leadership Team has five working groups: distribution, funding, farm to early childhood education, communication, education, and beef to school and are all open to the public.

The team is partially supported by funds from the USDA and in collaboration with the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

Each month, participating sites focus on promoting one locally grown item by serving it in at least one meal or snack, offering taste tests, conducting educational activities, and displaying or distributing "Harvest of the Month" materials.

Montana Farm to School Coordinator Aubree Roth said they have special training coming up in 2022 for producers, like cattle ranchers and farmers, to help get their product from their ranches and their farms straight to schools in Montana.

You can find more information about Montana Farm to School programs here.

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