By Sarah Gianelli EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – More than 200 people attended the Montana Farm to School Summit hosted by Montana State University on Sept. 22 and 23. Participants included representatives from more than 40 statewide schools, farmers, producers, distributors, parents and advocates from nonprofit organizations, after school programs, and day care facilities.

This was Big Sky resident Lindsie Hurlbut’s second time attending the conference. Hurlbut manages the Hungry Moose’s commercial kitchen and also plans and prepares lunch for the 35 pre-kindergarten to sixth grade students who attend Big Sky Discovery Academy, a Montessori school located in the same building.

The Discovery Academy has implemented farm to school principles in their lunch program since the school’s inception in 2014, and now with the help of Hurlbut, is incorporating more organized educational programming into their curriculum around locally sourced, organic meals.

Chef Ann Cooper provided a boost of motivation for attendees as the summit's keynote speaker. 

Chef Ann Cooper provided a boost of motivation for attendees as the summit’s keynote speaker. 

This year, Hurlbut initiated the Montana Harvest of the Month program at the school, which creates learning opportunities around a featured seasonal vegetable. October’s vegetable is kale and Hurlbut will creatively work the green into each meal. With the help of educational resources provided by organizations such as Montana Team Nutrition and Gallatin Valley Farm to School, the kids will learn how its grown, harvested, cooked and tastes.

“It is a learning opportunity on so many levels for the entire school,” said Nettie Quackenbush, BSDA’s executive director and former Ophir Elementary School teacher. “Teaching children how to nourish themselves is such a basic, necessary tool. What makes healthy bodies and healthy minds makes for successful learning.”

Discovery Academy founder and school board president Karen Maybee said the ultimate goal is to eventually tie in all the disciplines with farm to school practices and the Montana Farm to School Summit—which Quackenbush and Maybee also attended—provided an abundance of concrete ways to do so, not only in the school but in the community at large.

Hurlbut has two school-aged children that attend Ophir and is part of the effort to bring more of the farm to school philosophy to the public school, where the lunch menu still features traditional cafeteria fare like sloppy joes, corndogs, tater tots and pizza.

“I’m passionate about food, but it’s not about me. It’s about the kids,” Hurlbut said. “Every child has the right to eat well and learn about where their food comes from, how it’s grown, and how to make it taste good. We live in an agricultural state where farming is a huge part of our identity … and our food should be sourced locally for a multitude of reasons. And not only that, but prepared from scratch—not processed.”

Oct. 24 is National Food Day (October is National Farm to School Month), and Hurlbut is waiting for school board approval of Big Sky School District’s participation in “Crunch Time,” in which students statewide will all take a bite of a local, organic apple at 2 p.m.

Hurlbut said that simple programs like this and Montana Harvest of the Month would be a great way for Ophir to begin incorporating the farm to school ethic.

According to the most recent Department of Agriculture Farm to School census, 40 percent of Montana school districts or food service authorities reported purchasing local foods, tending school gardens, and providing comprehensive food education. Fifty-five Montana schools have their own vegetable gardens.

Foodservice directors like Kathy Hudson—who with a staff of two cooks for 100 of the 366 Ophir and Lone Peak High School students on an average day—cite time, staffing, government regulations and budget constraints as the major obstacles to shifting to a farm to school oriented lunch program.

“I personally feel the program is a wonderful idea,” said Hudson, who grew up on a Gallatin Valley farm and has her own large vegetable garden. “As far as it becoming a reality, it would take my staff remaining in place for more than a year, so I’m not always starting the year short staffed and training [new staff]. I would also probably need some added revenue, as [buying] local is sometimes more expensive. It may also take ordering in combination with someone else to ensure better pricing and delivery to this area.”

The Montana Farm to School Summit is designed to connect individuals with all the resources they need to create a successful farm to school inspired lunch program, as well as the correlating curriculum.

“It’s going to require support from administrators, parents and other community members,” Hurlbut said. “Everyone will have to be on board, see where [Hudson’s] road blocks are, and help her overcome the challenges she faces. Forty percent of all Montana schools engage in farm to school programs in some way—we should be a part of that percentage, if not spearheading it.”