Flash in the Pan 

In search of the Montana taco

In the cafeteria of Missoula’s Lewis and Clark primary school, hungry students file past a sign by the kitchen door announcing which components of the day’s meal are made from Montana ingredients: Soft-shell Montana tortillas filled with Montana beef, Montana cornbread, Montana honey sticks, Montana carrots and Montana huckleberry parfait.

In 22 states around the nation, more than 400 Farm to School programs are making an effort to put local food on school lunch menus.

The list of reasons this makes sense is longer than the line of students curving around the cafeteria. Local food tends to be fresher, which tends to be healthier and better tasting—and better-tasting vegetables tend to get eaten. And many children eat breakfast as well as lunch at school, which means that school kitchens are supplying a majority of their nutrition.

There are incentives beyond taste and health as well, but by and large, children don’t choose local food for the same reasons that adults do. Their young minds are relatively uncluttered by statistics about how far the average morsel of food travels from production to consumption (1,400 miles), or about how the fuels burned in that transport contribute to global warming and our nation’s dependence on foreign oil, or how consumption of local food helps the local economy by providing markets for local growers.

To get a better idea of what goes on inside the mind of a school cafeteria patron, I asked a young lad what he liked about the day’s lunch.

“The taco,” he said.

Ah, the Montana taco. I was hoping for an answer praising the virtues of Montana beef, or that locally made tortilla, when I asked what he thought was special about the taco.

“It has salsa on it,” he explained.

Then I heard a voice behind me say, “My favorite is the fresh carrots.”

I whirled around to face this promising candidate. “Which do you think is fresher,” I quizzed, “a carrot from Montana, or from California?”

He pounded his fist on the table: “I only want carrots from Montana!”

Here’s the poster child for Missoula’s Farm to School program, I thought. Digging deeper, I asked “Why only carrots from Montana?”

“And from Pennsylvania!” he said. “I only want to eat carrots from Montana, because that’s where I live, and from Pennsylvania, because that’s where I used to live.”

While school-age children might not be up on the subtleties of why local food is good, their minds are ready to go there. Thus a local foods program is an educational opportunity as well as a nutritional one—an opportunity to teach not only about the world-saving and health-supporting benefits of local food, but about the agriculture of our state, and the 60 million acres of farm and ranch land currently under cultivation in Montana.

Missoula’s Farm to School program is the first of its kind in Montana, and is funded with a grant from a private donor that helps offset the cost difference between local food and imported food, which paradoxically is often cheaper than the local stuff. But price is not the only obstacle.

“If local produce were available in the quantities we need, in a form we can use, and at a price we could afford, I’d buy as much as I could,” says Ed Christensen, Assistant Supervisor of Food and Nutrition Services for Missoula County Public Schools. He believes that if local foods were available in forms that work for him, then restaurants, hospitals, and other large-volume kitchens would buy more local food as well.

According to Ariel Bleth of Missoula’s Farm to School program, one of the biggest hurdles between here and there is the processing of local foods into value-added products which can be efficiently handled in institutional kitchens. “This is a discussion we are having with growers, distributors and purchasers,” she says.

Christensen agrees that this is an important piece of the puzzle. “The quality of local food is sensational. I just don’t have the labor force to peel 2,800 servings of carrots.” Nor does he have the time to call 10 different farms to round up all those carrots, when one call to a large distributor can bring him all he needs, in “coin,” “baby carrot” or grated form.

The potential for positive change via school lunches is huge. Berkeley, California’s Center for Ecoliteracy (ecoliteracy.org) has created a “Rethinking School Lunch” report with a 10-point model for the ideal school lunch program that addresses issues of food policy, curriculum integration, food and health, finances, the dining experience, professional development for teachers, food procurement and waste management.

Meanwhile, the University of Montana’s Farm to College program has spent more than $1 million on local food in the last three years. I’ll be helping them celebrate on Thursday, May 4, by competing in a head-to-head local-foods cook off. Read more about the event in this week’s Agenda.

flash@flashinthepan.net

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