Following in the wake of National Farm to School Month in October, we want to take a moment to acknowledge some of the biggest heroes of the Farm to School movement: the hardworking staff in school kitchens across Montana who are responsible for feeding 80,000 kids every day. What a job!
On October 16, NCAT brought several of those school food-service staff together at a Montana Cook Fresh training in Boulder, Montana. The training promoted healthy, local food in school cafeterias by providing participants with helpful skills for preparing whole, raw ingredients in school kitchens and turning them into delicious meals that meet school nutrition guidelines (and kids’ approval!).
The countertops of the Boulder Elementary School kitchen were covered with fresh produce ready for chopping as head trainer Chef Karea Anderson welcomed nine participants to the Montana Cook Fresh Training, a hands-on cooking course developed by Montana Team Nutrition of the Office of Public Instruction. Cook Fresh participants learn food preparation and cooking skills so that they are better equipped to serve fresh, healthy foods in school lunches. Hosted by NCAT, the training was part of a USDA Farm to School grant project that strives to bring more local food into Boulder and Butte school districts. Four food-service staff members from Boulder who cook for both the elementary and high school were joined by Butte’s Director of Food Services, an OPI Nutrition Specialist, an MSU dietetic intern, and two FoodCorps service members, making for a diverse group of people all committed to serving healthy food in schools.
Knife Skills 101
The morning kicked off with a session on knife skills. Anderson, a chef at St. Peter’s Hospital in Helena, demonstrated the various types of cuts to use when preparing onions, sweet potatoes, carrots, celery, fresh herbs, kale, and peppers. Each participant had his or her own tray full of these fresh ingredients and spent time practicing the various cuts.
Anderson also offered helpful tips for working with tough ingredients, like butternut squash. “I like to warm them up in the microwave; warming them up really helps,” she noted. After heating the squash, Anderson demonstrated how to peel and chop it in the most efficient way possible, an important skill when preparing large quantities of food for hungry kids. Another tip for healthy foods was to add fresh herbs to a recipe at the end of preparation as a way to bring out the flavor without added sodium. She also showed off a commercial chopper, which makes serving fresh snacks such as apples and oranges easier on the staff, as time for preparation is a constraint faced by most kitchens.
To bring all of the components of the day together, the group prepared Chili Roasted Sweet Potatoes, Roasted Veggie Wraps with Kale Pesto, and Black Bean and Sweet Potato Salad– all recipes that meet school nutrition requirements and utilize fresh, healthy ingredients. While cooking, teams tried out the new kitchen equipment that Boulder Elementary recently purchased with the Farm to School grant monies. When the cooking was complete, everyone sat down to eat together and reflect on the recipes. It was generally agreed that the sweet potato dishes were delicious, though they required a fair bit of labor. The group discussed what sort of equipment could help save on labor, ways to improve the flavor (more garlic!), and how kids would respond to the dishes. One participant commented, “The veggie wraps were amazing and probably not that much harder to make than enchiladas.”
Successful farm to school programs are dependent on the collaboration and dedication of many people in a school community, and food-service staff is high on that list of important players. Thanks to the many school food-service professionals across Montana who prioritize buying local food, and also thanks to Montana Team Nutrition and OPI for their commitment to growing farm to school efforts in our state.