It’s all happening! School is starting, fruits and vegetables are ripening, and Farm to School month is just around the corner. Schools and other institutions can act now to take advantage of the harvest and also preserve some of its tastiness for months to come. That’s what Missoula County Public Schools is doing to ensure that it will be serving local, nutritious, tasty produce well into the Montana winter. Last week I had a chance to talk with Ed Christensen, the district’s Assistant Foodservice Director, about steps he and the district are taking to preserve the fall bounty.

Q: How did you get started freezing and preserving local food for the school year?
Ed: This is the first year we’ve done it. We started with 100 pounds of broccoli which we blanched, froze, and boxed. The first 100 pounds went really well, so we bought 400 more pounds, and a couple hundred pounds of cauliflower to do the same. Then we also purchased 800 pounds of zucchini which we shredded and then froze. We’ll use the shredded zucchini mostly for zucchini bread but we’d also like to begin using it in recipes for things like lasagna and marinara sauce.

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Q: Where did you buy the produce?
We do most of our local purchases through the Western Montana Growers’ Cooperative though we’ve also done some direct purchasing from producers as well. For example, we made a huge green bean purchase from Cascade Colony. We started with 200 pounds of green beans which we “tipped” – or removed the tips of – before blanching and freezing. We found this to be a bit labor-intensive, but still we ordered 400 more pounds. In the future we would ask to have them tipped when they’re picked.

Q: It sounds like a time-consuming process. How have you made this cost-effective?
Well, we have the blanching down to a science. Large vats of hot water, large tubs of ice water, and then straight to the freezer. We would like to expand our blanching in the future, though. In terms of timing, I was able to blanch 600 pounds of broccoli in an hour and a half by myself. Sure, the stems were intact so the weight might be a bit misleading, but we use the stems too and grind them up for things like soups. We really try to maximize the use of all parts of the vegetables.

Making this fit in your budget can be the tricky part, but we looked at this as a way to get a higher quality product than its conventional counterpart at the same price, once you add in labor. The beauty of it is that the extra money is paid to staff. The added labor costs give the end product a price that is commensurate to that of its conventional counterpart. It’s a “fair market” way of doing it. Plus, the best part about it is that we’re going to serve vegetables with vibrant colors that don’t look like they’ve been sitting for 3 hours on a truck from the central kitchen to our satellite kitchens.

Q: Is there anything else you’re excited about for the upcoming school year that you’d like to share?
Definitely, we’ll also have three new salad bars, one in each middle school. Our goal is to have at least one local item or something cooked from scratch, like croutons, offered on the salad bar each week. We’re also excited for Food Day on October 24 when we’ll join the Montana Crunch Time campaign by having students in our district all bite into a locally grown apple at the same time, at 2 p.m.