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BSSD’s new food program and the driving force behind it

By Bay Stephens EBS LOCAL EDITOR

BIG SKY – For 10 years, Lindsie Hurlbut told her friend Whitney Littman, “I want to be the school lunch lady.” For most of that time Littman thought she was joking, but Hurlbut’s serious intent eventually became clear.

Since its genesis three years ago, the primary goal of the Big Sky School District Wellness Committee—which Littman oversees and on which Hurlbut used to serve—has been integrating nutrition into academics. Through her early involvement, Hurlbut realized her dream of being BSSD’s lunch lady, or Food Program Coordinator, beginning in the 2018-2019 school year.

The program she’s orchestrated is a multifaceted hit.

Since Hurlbut started, the number of BSSD students eating hot lunch daily has doubled, and she’d served 19,000 hot lunches to date by the end of February, according to Littman. Students and teachers alike are exposed to a variety of local foods, unlike the conventional image that “hot lunch” evokes for most people, thanks to a grant from the Moonlight Community Foundation that allows Hurlbut to order from regional growers.

“This is an agricultural state that we live in,” Hurlbut said. “It’s important for kids to know where their food’s coming from and how it tastes different when it’s grown local, and the life skills of learning how to cook whole foods.”

In March, Hurlbut won $500 for the food program in the 2019 Montana School Eats photo contest for assembling the most appealing arrangement of local foods. BSSD Art Educator Megan Buecking took the photo.

“There’s no way we couldn’t have won thanks to Ms. Buecking’s amazing photo and the Moonlight grant,” Hurlbut said.

The program not only improves the nutritional value of the food offered at the school; it furnishes special learning opportunities for other classes, such as Social Studies teacher Tony Coppola’s 11th grade history class.

For the first week of April, Coppola’s class traded in reading and writing essays about Vietnam for making a Vietnamese buffet to feed the whole school and any parent who wanted to join for lunch. Coppola’s class joined Hurlbut in the school kitchen during their history class periods throughout the week, then served the meal that Friday, April 5.

“Food is one of the biggest parts of a culture,” Coppola said. “It defines the culture, what they eat, how they prepare it. It brings them together. You learn a lot from a culture’s diet.”

Along with providing a supplementary arena of education, the food program has opened other teaching opportunities, such as a compost program in which food scraps are given to Dr. Kate Eisele’s 8th grade science class. The class recently completed the first compost batch of the year, which will be used by a Big Sky landscaper; in the future, Hurlbut said they hope to use the compost for a school gardening program.

The food program has also fostered workplace camaraderie, as more teachers have chosen to eat lunches together this year, Coppola said. Along with bringing teachers together, the program offers a special way for families to connect over food.

Each quarter, Hurlbut hosts a family cook night in which multiple families come to the school, prepare a meal together and sit down to eat with everyone.

“It’s really just to get kids cooking, and parents to learn new recipes and ideas,” Hurlbut said. “The last one we did was sushi, which was just fun.”

It’s not uncommon to find community members volunteering to prepare and serve lunches alongside Hurlbut in the kitchen, who said she couldn’t do it without her dedicated staff. Despite the helping hands, Hurlbut admits it’s a lot of work.

“It’s crazy, my days are kind of insane,” said Hurlbut, who arrives at the school at 6 a.m. to prepare food for the breakfast program, then transitions to making lunches, which can amount to 240 a day.

“If anything, I think she probably just needs more help so she can take a break,” Coppola said.

Littman echoed Coppola, adding that the program had met a majority of their goals early, shifting the conversation toward demand management and support for Hurlbut. Despite the workload, Hurlbut is excited about what has been accomplished this year.

“My number one goal was to change the perception of school lunch,” Hurlbut said.

With monthly Try Something New days and Salad Bar Fridays, as well as how hot lunch counts don’t fluctuate with menu items, it seems she’s hit the mark.

“We’re at a point now this far into the year that the kids just trust what we do,” she said. “… My numbers everyday are consistent. Kids don’t even read the menu, they just get hot lunch.”

Ultimately, it’s about education and food’s role is key.

“No kid should be in school if they’re hungry,” Littman said. “You can’t be a good learner [if you are]. And we’re asking a lot of our kids, so that’s pretty important. The wellness committee feels like we’re really entwined with the mission of our school. We think food and nutrition are really important for successful education for all kids.”

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