Healthy Students: Jennifer Montague takes lead in offering better meals for students
February 08, 2013
By DAVID REESE
Kalispell native Jennifer Montague stands outside Glacier High School in Kalispell. Montague arrived at School District Five in Kalispell in summer 2011 and has the task of rebuilding the school districtís hot lunch program. Dave Reese photo
Montana Health Journal
It’s 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, and Mary Brown is busy in the kitchen at Glacier High School. As another cook prepares a batch of hummus in a large mixer, there’s a buzz in the kitchen that hasn’t been there in a while. That’s because the kind of food they’re serving here is fresh and healthy — and the high school students are loving it.
So are the cooks.
“The kids are really excited,” Brown said. “They’re going for the fresher choices. It’s fun to cook here this year, because there are so many new and exciting things we’re putting out.”
The main reason there is so much excitement around the kitchen in Glacier High School — and other schools around Kalispell — is a healthier direction in school lunches brought about by ≠≠Jennifer Montague. Montague arrived at School District Five in Kalispell in summer 2011 and immediately began the task of rebuilding the school district’s hot lunch program. With a degree in sustainable food systems, Montague is working hard to provide students and staff with healthier food choices. That’s a big task. The district has 5,600 students and serves 4,400 meals a day at the elementary schools alone.
“I was hired to be an advocate for nutrition for students,” Montague said. “There are challenges but a lot of opportunities. The climate here is ripe for change for healthier food. I feel really lucky to be in this position right now because there is so much support, and the kids are really ready for a change.”
Montague has a diverse background in food and nutrition, from working at a weight loss clinic in France, to the Good Food Store in Missoula. She also put in time at the Center for Disease Control in Bozeman on a project to reduce childhood obesity. “I’m very passionate about food,” she said.
For elementary school lunches Kalispell’s school district uses a central kitchen that prepares food ahead of time, and delivers it to the schools. That poses a challenge for Montague, because it’s difficult to serve hot food that’s fresh after it’s been sitting in a holding oven for three or four hours. Nonetheless, School District Five is finding ways of getting healthier food on the plates of students.
With the help of the national Farm to School program, the district has begun serving food (when it’s in season) that’s grown locally, or at least in Montana. Montana’s Farm to School program connects Kindergarten children through 12th graders with locally raised food. The Farm to School program in Kalispell administers a snack program that brings fresh fruit and vegetables to Petersen, Hedges, Russell and Elrod elementary schools in Kalispell. The goal is to get children familiar with fresh food that tastes great, like melons from Dixon, Mont., cucumbers from Missoula, or cherries and green beans from the Flathead Valley. The program has purchased over 5,000 pounds of local food since school started in fall 2011, adding up to over $8,000 spent locally on vegetables. In addition the program has spent $3,000 on food-processing at the nonprofit - Mission Valley Food Enterprise Center.-
When fresh food is not available, the program supplements offerings with unique foods that kids might not get to try at home, like kiwi or star fruit. “We’re really excited about the snack program, and the kids have been very excited,” Montague said. “It’s a little messy to have food in the classrooms, but in general it’s been really great.”
High school and middle school students have been eager to try healthier changes, “but the elementary kids are hit and miss,” Montague said. “ It will take time, but we are trying to find healthy recipes that the kids like. It will be a process of teaching staff to cook new recipes and teaching kids to try them.”
Getting some of the cooks and administrations to accept the changes took a while longer. Kalispell has a very old kitchen and it supplies all the meals for the outlying elementary schools. “It’s a huge operation,” she said. “Our facilities are outdated, but there is land and money set aside for a new central kitchen. We need to build a new kitchen but until that happens we have some big challenges with the ability and space to prepare food.”
In October 2011 the Kalispell school district hired Malcolm Orser to help lead the better-food program at Glacier High School. Orser is a trained chef, Atlanta Chef of the Year, and has worked with the USDA on increasing the quality of USDA foods and recipes. “Hiring Malcolm is a such a huge success for our program,” Montague said. “He has the ability to put out excellent food and teach other staff how to do the same. He has been an incredible inspiration for our kitchen at Glacier High.”
Often times food like chicken nuggets and corn dogs is cooked, frozen and reheated at schools. “Those are items we’re trying to move away from and cook more with whole foods,” Montague said.
But that requires teaching or re-teaching some basic cooking skills. “Many of our staff have those skills Ö and many of them are underutilized,” she said. “Having to cook food from scratch will require new skills and equipment, but in general the cooks want to be proud of the food they’re making. Cooking is more satisfying to them than reheating a frozen product. It should come together in the next couple of years.”
In Montana it’s a challenge finding and distributing local foods in large enough quantities to feed 4,400 students. Sixty years ago, 70 percent of the food Montanans consumed was produced in state; today that number is down to about 10 percent, according to the Montana Farm to School program. In the last six decades Montana has lost much of the local infrastructure needed to serve the school market with local food, but Farm to School is hoping to change that — with the help of leaders like Montague. “There is no system in place for sourcing local foods, so it’s not as efficient as ordering from a large distributor,” she said. “Farmers some times don’t have enough of what is required. It’s just making the connections.”
The Montana Growers Cooperative brings farmers together so large organizations and schools can buy in bulk and plan meals ahead of time. The existing commercial food suppliers know their part in the system, and according to Montague they want to help where they can. “Suppliers have been flexible, and they want to move to a localized food system,” she said. “They understand when we want to source something locally.”
Even in winter, the snack program finds Montana vegetables. In December they served carrots from the Western Montana Growers Cooperative, tomatoes from Mountainview Gardens and carrots from Terrapin Farm in Whitefish.†In January they’ll have beet chips and butternut squash from Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center, whole apples from the Montana Growers Cooperative and whole pears from Charlie’s Produce. Katie Wheeler works with the Farm to School program and helps bring snacks to four schools in Kalispell. The fresh fruit and veggie program is funded by the USDA and administered by the school district’s food service.
Wheeler said the project has been a success. “I believe that the various stakeholders are grateful to have me as a resource to jump start the program,” she said. She has submitted a grant through The Whole Kids Foundation and FoodCorps to fund the development of a school garden at Elrod Elementary in Kalispell. Wheeler said she hopes the schools will be able to use the garden for learning without adding extra work to teachers’ already busy work days.
“One of my favorite parts of this position so far is delivering the snacks to the students at Elrod,” she said. “At first I was just the snack lady but now a bunch of the kids know my name and when they see me rolling the snack cart down the hall, they ask me what snack is that day. If it sounds like something they won't like, such as cabbage, I generally take a few seconds to tell them how tasty and nutritious it is, which has a way of convincing at least some of the kids to try it when they normally wouldn't have. Seeing those smiles is all I need to feel good about the progress we are making in the development of the Kalispell Farm to School program.”
There are also school farm projects popping up around Montana that help bring fresh food to schools. Somers Middle School has a small greenhouse and Lakeside Elementary has a small garden with raised beds. Lettuce and salad greens from the greenhouse have been used in the school lunch program, and arrangements have been made with the science teacher to begin growing snow peas in the spring. Whitefish School District is in the beginning stages of implementing a garden, and in spring 2009, West Glacier elementary school received several grants to build three raised garden beds with irrigation and hoop frames.
Kalispell’s school lunch program does not cost local taxpayers any money. The program is self supporting, with the program being reimbursed by federal money. We run an extremely tight budget.”
The federal funding has increased a few cents per meal under the Obama administration, which realizes that healthier meals are important. And if school districts serve healthier meals, they get a few more cents per meal from the federal government, Montague said. “With 4,400 meals, that can add up,” she said.
Working with students’ taste preferences is challenging, Montague said, as our culture is fairly engrained with the type of food it prefers: mainly fast food. Pizza, nachos and hamburgers are popular with children, so she has to come up with recipes that play off of those items, such as doing a burrito bar instead of nachos. That way, students can get fresh lettuce or tomatoes. “Those can really be a healthy part of a meal. If kids try something they like, they’re willing to change their habits,” Montague said. “I have faith in the kids.”
Work also has to be done on the distribution of local foods, in order for healthier food to make it into the lunch rooms. The Kalispell school district uses Montana dairy products when it can, but milk has to be supplied in eight-ounce cartons so student consumption can be monitored. Kalispell Kreamery, a dairy in Kalispell, does not provide the small containers of milk so school districts can’t use their milk, Montague said. “We would love to have them be our supplier,” she said.
It seems that the smaller a farm is, the harder it is to get their food into distribution, so the cooperatives are key to bringing local food into schools. Cost is a big factor in serving fresh, whole foods at home — or at school. “We can’t always provide pretty-looking plates of food to the masses Ö but we’re going to do our best,” Montague said. ē≠