Local, fresh and growing are not just words that describe the produce being harvested for the Ennis School District’s Farm to School Program, but also the program itself and students who participate in its various aspects.
The district participates in Farm to School in partnership with Madison Farm to Fork and the Food Corps service program. The partnership began in 2010. Madison Farm to Fork sells some of its produce to the school at a reduced price and offers educational programs for students as well. Interim executive director Erica Evans Mita estimates Madison Farm to Fork contributes 25 pounds of produce to the school each week during the spring and fall.
“The students take trips to our greenhouse and get to experience different foods like kale and varieties of tomatoes,” Mita said.
Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau proclaimed October is Farm to School Month on Oct. 7. During this month, schools across the state will celebrate with various activities and continued work to improve child nutrition by helping children understand where their food comes from. In 2010, the United States House of Representatives declared October National Farm to School month.
Ennis teacher Jamie Diehl recently returned from the Youth Summit on Diversifying the Future of Food conference in Missoula. Diehl said four of her students attended the conference and learned more about careers in the food industry beyond the typical chef or restaurant owner. Diehl teaches family and consumer science, life skills, personal skills, and culinary classes.
Demetrius Fassas, the district’s new Food Corps service member, teaches lower level elementary students about the benefits of locally grown food and works with the students in the school garden revamping the compost heap, harvesting and planting. He said he intends on creating more opportunity for older students to be involved with the garden. Fassas said many teachers find creative ways to incorporate the garden into their lesson plans.
“It’s nice to know we have students who want healthier, local foods in the school,” Fassas said.
The school garden contains corn, beans, squash, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, kale, kohlrabi, garlic, onions, beets, snap peas, peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, ground cherries, strawberries, rhubarb, broccoli, potatoes, flowers for pollinators and seed eating birds, and two apple trees. Madison Farm to Fork Farm to School program coordinator Janet Dochnahl said the garden’s produce is limited due to its small size. She said students eat most of it as part of lesson plans or cooking activities. Diehl recently had students make breakfast for school staff using produce from the school garden.
One of Diehl’s students wanted more than just local produce in the cafeteria. He asked Diehl, “Isn’t Montana one big ranch?” The student’s question may spur on communication with local ranchers about getting local beef in the school.
In the United States, the typical food item travels 1,500 to 2,400 miles from farm to plate and requires more fuel energy to transport the food than the food energy it provides. The long travels reduce the produce’s freshness and taste. Mita said Ennis students taste tested fresh local carrots against pre-packaged baby carrots from the grocery store and the fresh local carrots won hands down.
Fassas said more urban areas and states have had less success and harder times with their Farm to School Programs. Ennis has not had that problem. Diehl said one of her culinary class sizes more than doubled this year. She credits the district’s food service staff for being willing to use items from the local greenhouse in the salad bar at lunch and looking at other items that can transition in.
None of the other county schools currently participate in the Farm to School program. Twin Bridges Superintendent Chad Johnson said his district was in the early process of reviewing and planning for a Farm to School program of their own. Ruby Valley students can participate in classes and programs at Jackson’s Garden, but the garden does not produce a large enough volume year round to provide produce consistently to the schools. Much of the garden’s production and work comes during the summer months when students are not in school.
“I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to have the conversation about local food in a number of my classes,” Diehl said. “It ties into food, nutrition, child development and finance. I am really looking forward to incorporating more and more local foods as the program grows.”
Ennis Schools will be participating in the statewide Montana Crunch Time on Oct. 24. Crunch Time organizers aim to have as many students as possible biting into a locally produced apple at 2 p.m. that day.