I have finally discovered it: the essence of being the FoodCorps service member at Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center (MMFEC) in Ronan, Montana. MMFEC is pretty unique among FoodCorps sites: we’re a fully inspected and certified community-based food processing center. In terms of both geography and relationships, we’re positioned between the Western Montana Growers Cooperative (WMGC) and some of the biggest and most committed K-12 buyers of local food in Montana. Not only do we have the equipment to process fresh fruits and vegetables, we have staff who are knowledgeable and experienced in food safety and product development.

This placement means that I am well situated to carry out FoodCorps’ mission of connecting kids to real food. This February, I did just that: I guided a healthy, local product from the farm into classrooms on a large scale.

It all started with a perfect storm of beets: growers had an abundance of them and they are FoodCorps members’ favorite Valentine’s Day vegetable. Over the winter, I leveraged our processing staff’s expertise to develop new beet products—different cuts, frozen raw cubes, and roasted cubes. For the more complicated products, we had to go through the somewhat arduous process of developing a Method of Production and HACCP (Hazard Analysis at Critical Control Points) food safety procedure.

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In early February, I rallied orders for beets from schools in WMGC’s distribution area. FoodCorps members in other school districts bought boxes to use in the classroom or cafeteria. Kalispell and Polson bought roasted beet cubes to serve as a cooked Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) snack. Enthusiastic school food service staff make it possible for local growers to sell to schools: Jenny Montague, the Food Service Director in Kalispell trusts and buys most products WMGC offers, and JB Capdeville, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Coordinator in Polson is bold with the new products she brings into her FFVP snacks. With eight willing buyers for orders of all sizes, WMGC dropped off 775 pounds of local beets, MMFEC processed them, and WMGC distributed to the schools.

Many times, my involvement with helping schools procure local product has ended here: in the school kitchen. This time, though, I took a couple more steps to bring students a deeper experience with the local food in their classrooms. Working with champion teachers in each grade at Linderman Elementary in Polson, I scheduled beet lessons with eleven classes. A local farmer—Nicole Jarvis of Ploughshare Farm—visited each class with me. Her four year-old daughter passed around beet seeds for students to examine as we discussed how beets grow. Nicole even led the fourth graders in some beet math, asking them to calculate how much space on her farm it took to grow the beets for their class—and their school!

Beets were a (potentially scary) new vegetable for most of the students, so we first made sure everyone understood the “don’t yuck my yum” principle and then promised a fun sticker to whoever tried at least two bites of beets. Every student raised his or her hand, holding a beet cube high into the air, and cha-cha-cha-ed, “we love remolacha!” (that’s “beet” in Spanish) then bit into the roasted purple vegetable. Pretty much everyone joined the Two Bite Club that day, and there were many rave reviews.

Class and beet farmer

The farmer grew the beets. The farmer came to the classroom to eat the beets she grew with students. And I got to orchestrate all the steps in between. This is what it means to be a FoodCorps member at MMFEC: facilitating the full circle of farm to school.

This article was written by Nicki Jimenez, the talented FoodCorps member serving in Ronan and Polson with the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center.