The hum of happily chewing mouths filled the Ennis School lunchroom on January 15th as students, for the first time in our school’s history, enjoyed beef stroganoff prepared with local Montana beef.  Not only is this sort of beef purchase good for the local economy, but it has tremendous environmental benefits.  This beef was born, raised, and processed right here in Montana, delivering a monumental decrease in the miles that the product had to travel from field to fork.  That doesn’t just mean that we are burning less fossil fuels—it means we get a fresher product as well!  The students and staff who ate this new preparation of an old lunchroom favorite had a chance to cast their votes about the beef with a declaration of “Tried it,” “Liked it,” or “Loved it” and a resounding 94% voted that they “Loved it!”  With a reception like that, it is safe to say that this is not the last time local beef will appear on the school’s menu.

Following the local lunch, Brett & Rita Owens visited elementary school classrooms and shared their ranching perspective from our very own Madison Valley.  These students may have already understood where beef comes from, but do they realize just how much energy is put into the processes, from field to fork? Certainly after hearing from the Owens family, these students gained a bigger view on how beef typically moves around this country before reaching their plate, and not only that, but they got to enjoy the zeal and humor of Brett and Rita as they shared their experiences. A public thanks is very much due to this wonderful couple and their willingness to answer every question the kids wanted to ask. 
The rest of the month held exciting events galore as Rachel Endecott, the MSU Extension Beef Specialist, came in on Tuesday, January 21st to talk with the Jr. High and High School students about the history of ranching in the country and in Montana specifically. She also gave students the opportunity to break up into groups and brainstorm the requirements for different methods of beef production (grain-finished, grass-fed, naturally raised, and certified organic). Following the small group discussion, everyone gathered together for a facilitated discussion on how these differing methods can fit into our local food system as well as the global food system. Discussions like these provide a springboard for students to consider the energy that goes into food production and distribution around the world, and an opportunity to discover that some foods simply make more sense to purchase locally.

On January 22, students were able to compare grass-fed to conventional, grain-finished beef and give their feedback to the school during a blind lunchroom taste test.  After tallying the 207 votes that were received, it seems that the school was nearly evenly split, with grass-fed beef barely winning with 51% of the votes. Whatever the results, these were arguably some of the best burgers ever to reach the lunchroom.  All of the patties were prepared fresh, never frozen, right in the Madison Valley by Meat MT.  This event was followed up by classroom visits in the elementary school by Garl Germann of Montana Meat Co., a collaborative of seven ranches that are working to provide Montana-raised meat straight to Montanans. Garl, whose family raised the grass-fed beef that was served in the Ennis School lunchroom, facilitated discussion about the beef taste test and spoke to the differences between eating and producing these two varieties of beef.

To finish out the month, on January 31, not only did the Ennis Mustangs basketball team defeat our rival, Twin Bridges, but fans in attendance were able to eat a delicious steak dinner to support the student organizations Business Professionals of America, Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America, and SkillsUSA.  This year, the students were pleased to announce that the money donated didn’t just help to support their clubs, but also went to provide a nutritious Montana raised steak for those partaking in the meal!  The nearly 320 people in attendance were given the opportunity to learn about the Beef to School efforts that had taken place over the month, as well as to voice their opinions on getting local beef into our school.

The discussion that this month has generated within our school and the surrounding community is not one to be easily stifled.  Support from local organizations such as the Madison Valley Cattle Women’s Association, Madison Farm to Fork, and the Madison Conservation District will be voiced at our upcoming Ennis School Board meeting and further local substitutions in our school’s menu are in the works.  With continued education and participation of ranchers in the valley, as well as support from the community, it is safe to assume that this momentum will carry the Ennis School District into a new era of local procurement.

Written by FoodCorps Service Member, Demetrius Fassas, teaching kids about where real food comes from and connecting his local school to Montana ranchers in Ennis, MT.