Alyssa Charney is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Red Lodge, MT.

Sunrise was still a few hours away as I unloaded butternut squash, onions, and cherry tomatoes from my car and into the school where I met our food service director. A few minutes later local chef Eric Trager knocked on the cafeteria window. I ran out to help him with the lasagna sheets he had made from scratch over the weekend. Before I could even set down decorations and menus, volunteers were chopping carrots, peeling cucumbers, and rinsing cilantro.

This early morning was the beginning of a “Montana Made Meal” celebration in Red Lodge, where I am serving as a Montana FoodCorps member with the Red Lodge
Food Partnership Council. Here at the base of the Beartooth Mountains, Red Lodge continues to amaze me with its abundant supply of enthusiasm and involvement. This meal was no exception.

  • 60 more students and faculty than usually purchase school lunch decided to buy lunch after learning of the meal.
  • 20 pounds of freshly harvested greens arrived from a greenhouse just fifteen miles away, a few hours before lunch.
  • 2 local farmers not only shared their harvest, but also their knowledge, joining us for the day and speaking with each K-12 lunch.
  • 1 entire meal made from food that was grown or raised in Montana
While the numbers are exciting, I was equally happy to hear questions from the students who I’ve been working with on farm field trips, planting indoor garden boxes, and healthy food taste tests.
“Are there any lentils in this lunch?”
“Is the cheese from Montana?”
“How long did it take to grow the squash and apples for this soup?“
Sure, not all of the students loved every new taste, I was glad that they were talking and thinking about where the ingredients came from.
Before I got swept away by my own excitement, though, I forced myself to think back to the most important word of all.
How can we make sure this local meal can be replicated and sustained in the schools? How can we sustain the health of our community? And what about the sustainability of the land that feeds us?
I should mention that since arriving in Red Lodge it’s been impossible for me to leave the farmers’ market or a local farm without bags of cucumbers, boxes of potatoes, or arms full with squash that someone wants to donate to the school.
Red Lodge students enjoy lunch with the farmers who grew it (Dick Espenschield and Bonnie Martinell)
And that’s incredible. It’s incredible that producers throughout the region also believe in growing healthy kids and want to help. But in order to illustrate the feasibility and the sustainability of this work, we have to show that buying local is possible with a school food budget. Not only with donations.
So as Kimberly, our food service director, and I finally sat down to enjoy some lasagna, squash apple soup, and salad after the meal, we talked about how to start coordinating with local farmers as they plan for what they’ll plant next season. We want these meals to continue, and we want them to work for the school AND the farmers. As we moved on to dessert, pumpkin bread pudding, our discussion progressed to plans for a school garden, the land for which the city council approved just last week. Planning for a healthy, sustainable future never tasted so sweet.