Ophir to host family cooking night

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor

BIG SKY – The Big Sky School District Wellness Committee got a reinvigorating shot in the arm in December 2016 when it was joined by additional members of the community who are particularly passionate about improving food and nutrition education in the district.

On April 4, despite bureaucratic and budgetary challenges, the committee of 13—comprised of parents, teachers, administrators, the current lunch program manager and local chefs—took two more small steps in the direction of incorporating the farm to school ethos in the lunchroom and classroom.

On May 4, 10 families will gather at Ophir Elementary for the committee’s first family cooking night and prepare a simple, healthy meal together that reflects what is in season locally, paired with an educational component.

The committee also committed to participating in Gallatin Valley Farm to School’s Harvest of the Month program for the 2017-2018 school year. The nonprofit’s flagship program provides cross-curricular educational programming surrounding a featured in-season, locally sourced vegetable, grain, legume or meat that also shows up in the lunchroom.

The nonprofit’s executive director Sam Blomquist was present at the April 4 meeting and suggested both initiatives as good ways to begin introducing the farm to school programming to the district.

Spearheading the family cooking night effort is Eric Walnum, a personal chef at the Yellowstone Club who has been volunteering his time to be on the committee out of a fervent belief in the long-term positive effects of fruits and vegetables and the importance of forming healthy eating habits at a young age.

Ophir Elementary students take advantage of the supplementary fresh fruits and vegetables made available by the Big Sky School District Wellness Committee to determine if providing healthier options would increase participation in the school lunch program.

Ophir Elementary students take advantage of the supplementary fresh fruits and vegetables made available by the Big Sky School District Wellness Committee to determine if providing healthier options would increase participation in the school lunch program.

“Allowing children to be part of cooking (and shopping, gardening, harvesting) empowers them to take a role and become actively engaged in the process of making something to eat,” Walnum said. “The result is having children more excited about tasting, trying and possibly devouring what they’ve helped create. We see this as an opportunity to help students learn about food and acquire skills to help their parents at home or to become competent to safely arrange a healthy snack at home.”

Walnum’s hope is that family cooking night will become a monthly event.

These recent steps to bring healthier, more consciously-sourced and -prepared food to the district comes on the heels of a parent and child survey the committee conducted in late January to gain insight into why the current school lunch program sees low—if on par with most Montana schools—participation.

In response to results that suggested both demographics wanted to see more fresh, healthy options in the cafeteria, the committee conducted a two month-long experiment that ended April 13 to see if participation in the lunch program would increase with the addition of supplementary fresh fruits and vegetables.

For the duration of the “experiment,” committee members volunteered their time to prep and serve the additional fruit and vegetables, which were provided twice a week, free of charge to both hot lunch and brown bagger students.

“In the elementary school it was a huge win,” said Whitney Littman, wellness committee coordinator, school board member and parent of two Ophir students. “Every kid was so curious about what was available and to learn about it. It was so special to see these kids go for carrots and cucumbers when you offer them as a side option to what they’re getting in the hot lunch program.”

Littman said it was harder to determine the success in the high school, which could have been due to presentation constraints, or perhaps points to the need to hook kids on healthy eating at a young age.

“The mission for the wellness program is long-term,” Littman said. “It’s about educating kids now so they can make a lifetime of healthy choices when it comes to what they put in their body. I think we have a lot of the key ingredients—we have a lot of interest from the community in the food and nutrition component of the school lunch program, and interest from parents and teachers in the education component. And what we learned from Gallatin Valley Farm to School is it’s not hard to do a taste test once a month, and make food a topic of conversation, rather than just something you put on a plate.”

Food costs and labor availability are the tallest hurdles to sourcing and preparing the kind of quality, regional ingredients that the wellness committee would ultimately like to see in the school lunch program.

Big Sky School District Superintendent Dustin Shipman, who also sits on the wellness committee, said that’s why bringing farm to school practices to the district has to be supported by a grassroots community effort.

“What we’re trying to do is not like flipping a switch—it’s significant,” Shipman said. “We have a lot of champions for it which makes it easier, but it’s small steps towards a great thing. And that’s with everything.”

Big Sky School District’s next wellness committee meeting is Monday, April 24, at 2 p.m. in the Ophir Elementary conference room and is open to the public. The first family cooking night will be held at 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 4, and is open to the first 10 families to sign up.