From Apples to Zucchini Kid’s Dig Local Foods

The bounty of Montana’s harvest is in full-swing. This month is peak time for those wanting to both savor and devour local gems like plums, tomatoes, beans, squash, meats and cheeses. On any evening this month, you may find me gorging on cherry tomatoes while blending and freezing batches of pesto. In our house, there aren’t many winter doldrums a homemade batch of pizza with pesto won’t cure! 

With a bit of planning and thoughtfulness, September is a time of year when residents of Gallatin Valley can create menus bursting with fresh and local produce. It doesn’t have to be fancy and involved to be wonderfully delicious. In fact, to bring local food offerings into homes, restaurants and our schools, it shouldn’t be fancy but simple, fresh, delicious and accessible.  

Like many things, adding kids to the equation can make situations differently complex. Gallatin Valley Farm to School isn’t writing kids out of the equation though. Instead, we make kids the focal point and work to ensure that ALL kids in Gallatin Valley have access to this delicious and farm-fresh food at school. We work to make sure that those experiences with local foods are positive, meaningful for kids and contribute to the greatness of the place we all call home.

Disclaimer, there’s no simple recipe for these challenges.  

But, there are a few simple tactics we can all get behind and apply to our community. Gallatin Valley Farm to School’s work in school cafeterias is a beautiful melding of community, nutrition and agriculture. Gallatin Valley Farm to School (GVF2S) honors and appreciates our local agricultural community. And, we believe the best way to demonstrate this reverence is for our kids to eat food grown by our farmers. When local food offerings appear in the cafeteria line, these foods are accessible to everyone. Large segments of our community eat 1, 2 or even 3 meals per day at school.  Take it from Christina Angell, owner of Root Cellar Foods, a Bozeman-based business that turns locally grown vegetables into ingredients that large-scale consumers – from grocery stores to restaurants to school cafeterias – can use to prepare meals for customers by doing the washing, chopping, shredding, and slicing. Angell states, “Awareness of local food is key in helping kids make the best decisions to maximize their nutrition, health of their community, not to mention the planet.”

Public schools across the United States serve 30 million lunches per day. In Montana alone, K–12 schools spend over $18 million annually on food. If schools can devote even a small portion of their budget to local producers, this can have a dramatic positive impact on the livelihood of our Montana farmers and ranchers.  

Getting thoughtfully and locally sourced food ingredients into school menus is a victory to acknowledge and celebrate.  And celebrate Montana lentils and Montana beef on school menus we do. But, to be successful, students (and parents!) must participate and support these offerings by plucking them out of the cafeteria line and eating them.  

If you’re a skeptic and believe that kids don’t eat veggies and school meals are just processed bland many shades of grey...think again!  

GVF2S encourages student consumption of fresh and local produce by participating in and promoting Montana’s Harvest of the Month program. Each month a Montana grown item is showcased in school lunch. This program offers a framework for items, say kale (September) or apples (October) to flow from the classroom to the cafeteria.

It’s commonly said in the farm to school community that “kids who grow broccoli, eat broccoli.”  We wholeheartedly agree!  And, we take this a few steps farther. It’s our belief and experience that if kids can grow it, smell it, touch it, observe it, draw it and harvest it they are more likely to taste and enjoy it.

What does this look like in a school setting? On any given month we may be painting with our vegetables, using natural pigments for color. Some readers may recall being a lucky recipient of a handcrafted and beet-painted Valentine. Or we may be measuring and weighing different squashes for comparison. Then we might roast that squash and puree it to bake muffins. Or, we may venture out to the school’s garden for a lesson and discussion on plant parts that concludes with everyone harvesting a seed, stem, flower or root to snack on.

Sampling food items to encourage purchase is a proven tactic at grocery stores, coffee shops and cafes. I know just how tasty fresh goat cheese from Amaltheia Organic Dairy is, because I was given a sample at the farmers market that allowed me to try that tasty goat cheese and in turn, purchase it.

Good news, it works with kids too! We know that the most effective way to increase kids’ consumption of different Harvest of the Month ingredients is for them to try it before they see it in the cafeteria line. So, GVF2S comes to the cafeteria and sets up a ‘taste test’ for the kids to try before they buy.  Folks, this is good, honest, effective and not at all glamorous. All kids, whether they purchase lunch or bring it from home are encouraged to sample the ingredient, like apple slices or kale slaw or roasted beets. After they sample, students offer feedback by voting ‘tried it, liked it or loved it.’ It doesn’t take long for kids to recognize us in the cafeteria and we’re often greeted with comments like this one from an area kindergartner, “I love these days, when we get to try new foods!”  

Dana Brandt, Food Service Manager for Belgrade Public Schools underscores this sentiment “When it comes down to it, there’s nothing that tastes better than fresh, local food and the kids can really tell the difference.”

But does this multi-faceted approach to student nutrition work? Darren Strauch, Superintendent of Monforton Schools and GVF2S partner seems to think so.

Monforton is one of six districts we partner with in Gallatin Valley.  Strauch says “It was difficult to stand in the way of the groundswell of administrative and teacher support for GVF2S’s program. It was a true staff effort. It also helped me personally as I now have a Community Supported Agriculture Share (CSA) with Three Hearts Farm.” At the Monforton School, GVF2S is proud to collaborate and deliver a program that integrates classroom and cafeteria functions and activities, all centered on the Harvest of the Month framework.

Dipping your toe in our local food system can actually be a lot of fun. Gardening in your backyard with kids or volunteering at their school garden is rewarding. The look on kids’ faces when they pluck carrots from the ground is a good reminder of what a truly ‘wonder-full’ experience gardening and growing food can be. Exploring topics like how a tiny seed becomes a huge zucchini, watching pollination happen and compost (worm poop!) instigates the ever curious nature of kids. With little encouragement, kids welcome the chance to dig their hands into soil and explore the dirt that makes their food and the food that can, in turn, make more dirt to grow their food.

School gardens are wonderful extensions of the classroom. A garden incites curiosity but also evokes a sense of calming for students that can be tough to find in a busy school day. At GVF2S we know not every school has the capacity to build or maintain a garden. Fear not! For a minimal cost, we’ll bring the garden to you! How does one transport a garden, you wonder? Well, fairly easily actually, when that garden is in the form of our mobile greenhouse bus. The Bozone Ozone Bus, affectionately called BOB, travels to schools and community events to teach students about science, nutrition, sustainable agriculture, and environmental stewardship. BOB gives students the opportunity to dream BIG while planting their own vegetable seeds, exploring a school bus turned greenhouse, learning how to compost and much more!

Supporting the hands-on and multi-faceted approach to engaging with our food, we’re proud to announce that in October we’ll be leading Gallatin Valley’s 8th annual National Farm to School Month Celebration.  

We hope you’ll join us at least one of the following events:

September 13-14 Montana Farm to School Summit, Missoula – join farm to school stakeholders from across Montana so we can learn from and inspire each other.

September 25 Dining for Dirt at Montana Ale Works -- a ‘fun’draising event for 21+ to enjoy deliciously crafted small plates paired with deliciously crafted local brews.

October 6 Feastival at Rocky Creek Farm -- a pinnacle ‘harvest’ themed free and family friendly community celebration where you can churn butter, mill wheat and even make your own cutting board!

October 24 Montana Crunch Time -- a school-based event where students around the state learn about Montana grown apples and collectively take a bite out of snappy, juicy and delicious Montana grown apples.

Looking to integrate local foods and farm to school principles into your family routine? Join GVF2S and support us by:

• Requesting our programming at your neighborhood school. A visit from the legendary BOB bus, inviting us into your classrooms, after school programming or school gardens.  If you have a kiddo with a milestone to celebrate, make it one to remember by hosting your party with the BOB bus.

• Bring your family to one of our Family Feast cooking classes.  This fall we’ll expand upon a successful program whereby families return to school in the evening to cook and eat together. 

• Send your child to one of our summer camps next year where we have fun outside planting, harvesting, cooking and more.

• If you have kids in the school system, browse their monthly lunch menu and dine with them when locally sourced items appear on the menu.  It’s not magic, but sharing a midday meal in the school cafeteria with your son or daughter can be quite magical.  And, increased consumer demand for local food in schools makes the proposition for increasing the piece of the $18-million-dollar pie for our local farmers and ranchers that much stronger.

Find additional detail about these events, programs and how to get involved at   

Jenn Adams is the Associate Director at Gallatin Valley Farm to School a Bozeman-based nonprofit organization. If you would like to help bring healthy local food into the cafeteria and classroom in our community, consider a donation at