“I don’t want the pudding, I’m eating beets so I can be healthy!” If you are a parent, food service director, cook, or nutrition educator, chances are these words would be music to your ears, especially coming from a young student. This is exactly what was overheard by a school cook in Hinsdale, MT, one of eleven sites around the state that are participating in the pilot of the Montana Harvest of the Month program.

Students explore beets as part of a Harvest of the Month pilot program activity.

Missoula students explore beets as part of a Harvest of the Month pilot program activity.

The Montana Harvest of the Month program showcases Montana-grown foods in our schools and communities. This project is a collaboration between the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), the Office of Public Instruction, Montana Team Nutrition Program, Montana State University Extension, and FoodCorps Montana. Each month, the schools participating in the pilot focus on promoting one locally grown item (e.g., winter squash) by serving it in a meal, offering taste tests to students, and doing educational lessons and activities surrounding both the nutritional and agricultural aspects of the food. The two primary goals for this program are to expose students to new, healthy foods and to support Montana’s farmers and ranchers. Aubree Roth, the state Farm to School Coordinator with OPI, is leading this collaborative team. February was the kick-off month, with locally grown beets being served around the state. This month, schools will feature Montana beef.

Missoula students show off their beet-stained hands during a Harvest of the Month educational activity.

More fun with beets!

Beets, Beef and Beyond

While some of the schools participating in the pilot have been serving local food through various kinds of locally initiated “harvest of the month” programs on their own, this pilot is seeking to provide schools with comprehensive resources and materials for a year’s worth of local foods, with the calendar based on the seasonality and availability of Montana-grown foods. The participating schools receive posters, handouts for the teachers and cafeteria staff, and a flyer for the students to take home with activities, recipes, and facts about the item. Knowing that teachers and food service staff have full schedules, the project team has worked to provide standardized recipes and easy lessons to ensure that the kids are exposed to the item in a variety of ways.

For example, this month the schools are serving Montana beef. Pilot schools will include information about beef in their newsletters in addition to the materials that go to the teachers and cafeteria staff. Check out the excerpt from the school newsletter for March:

Poster for Harvest of the Month pilot program

Harvest of the Month poster highlighting beef

Keep it moooving! Beef packs a powerful nutritional punch. It is an excellent source of protein for building strong muscles and contains important nutrients like iron and B vitamins. Select lean cuts of beef, trim the fat, and drain cooked ground beef to lower the fat content. There are many ways to cook up a healthy meal with beef. Consider making beef fajitas by piling your favorite veggies in a whole-grain wrap with thinly sliced stir-fried beef. Montana is home to more cattle than people and ranks 6th in the nation for the number of beef cattle. These bovines have been grazing in our nation’s fields since the 1500s! Cattle are ruminants, which means they have four-chambered stomachs that allow them to digest grasses.

Tried It, Liked It, Loved It!

One of the main features of the program is a “taste test” activity, which is a great way to engage students in trying a food they may not be familiar with. Each school sets up a place in the lunchroom for the kids to try a sample of the local item (beets, for example) and then vote whether they “tried it,” “liked it,” or “loved it.” Through tasting the sample and voting, kids have a chance to not only explore new foods, but to also provide meaningful feedback – and to know that their opinion matters. Some schools follow the taste test with further questions, such as “Would you like to eat this item in your lunch at school?” or “Which recipe would you like to see served at lunch?” Giving kids a voice not only helps them feel important, it also increases the likelihood that they will try new foods more regularly and finish those items when they show up on their lunch tray.

Taste test cups

Taste test cups. iPads work too!

Expanding Harvest of the Month

According to Patti Armbrister, the Hinsdale School Agriculture Teacher & FFA Adviser, students were already asking for another taste test after getting to cast their vote for beets on iPads set up around the cafeteria. They will be doing a taste test and voting event with one of the beef recipes this month.

The Harvest of the Month calendar for the remainder of the school year includes whole grains in April, lentils in May, and mixed greens in June. The pilot program will pick up again in September, with schools featuring a lineup of summer squash, kale, apples, winter squash, and carrots.

Pilot sites are providing feedback and conducting evaluations with their students, teachers, and food service staff. At the end of the pilot, this information will be taken into account and the materials updated; the program is expected to be launched statewide in summer 2016. Stay tuned for more stories of success serving local food in our Montana schools!