Back when the yellow tamaracks and aspens gave Western Montana a shocking amount of fall color, FoodCorps members from around the state convened at the jubilant DIY get-together that is the annual conference for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization, or AERO. There, sometime between the pie contest and the square dance, Demetrius Fassas of Ennis, Jessica Manly of Kalispell, and I participated in a short panel on the various Farm to School efforts at our service sites.

Before that point, the Farm-to-School projects in my service had felt haphazard and unrelated. At various points throughout the fall, I found myself G-Chatting with Nicki Jimenez to figure out the packaging of local carrot coins, serving decidedly non-local grapefruit in classes at Bigfork, and driving down miles of a wooded back road to pick up buckets of carrots and beets from a generous local gardener. It felt more than a little bit scrappy. Preparing for the AERO panel, which emphasized the diversity among our three service site situations, allowed me to see these projects as a cohesive, localized farm-to-school effort at each of my three school districts—Somers/Lakeside, Bigfork, and Cayuse Prairie, which are all small town or rural schools in the Southern half of the Flathead Valley.

Somers is certainly ahead of the game; Robin Vogler, my supervisor and the Food Service Director there, has been recognized for her deft and progressive incorporation of local products into her menus. Robin has established a school garden and even a hydroponic greenhouse to supply her salad bar with lettuce through the winter. Being a relatively small school district, she has developed steady and fruitful relationships with small local growers, and she is astonishingly open to new ways of getting local food onto her students’ trays.

Bigfork School Districts, meanwhile, has just hired a dedicated new Food Service Director, Ginny Kirby, who promptly implemented a salad bar and plans to start purchasing local food over the next few months. At Bigfork, Ginny and I have worked together to make plans for buying local, but in the meantime, she has offered me sample amounts of non-local produce for taste tests in my classes. While I might prefer these fruits and veggies to be local, they are still healthy new products on her lunch line that kids need introducing to, so I see it as a first step. I trust that once Bigfork does start to purchase local foods, the kids will still recognize me as the food lady and be just as fanatical, if not even more eager, to taste honeycrisp apples grown on the shores of Flathead Lake as they are to taste raw zucchini from California. (Yes, many first graders begged me for thirds and fourths of raw zucchini slices. Who knew?)

Cayuse Prairie is certainly the strangest of all my incarnations of Farm-to-School — after all, they don’t even have a lunch service. But the principal helped me put out some “vegetable wante” ads in their newsletter and on Facebook, and to my surprise, the vegetables started to appear (here was where I ended up driving down a back road for root vegetables). In fact, produce kept appearing reliably, if serendipitously, until the December holidays. So, in an improbable situation, the Cayuse Prairie community came together to feed the students super-local fruits and vegetables, re-acquainting them with sweet, fresh versions of familiar foods like carrots, apples, pears, and beefsteak tomatoes, as well as introducing them to some funkier new foods like purple potatoes, beets, spaghetti squash, and (of course) the hippest vegetable of them all, kale. Most of the time, a majority of the students had never tasted these novel veggies and fruits, and with a brief introduction to each food, the whole lunchroom would ceremoniously bite into our new vegetable at the same time. I knew something was working when a fourth-grader, somewhat crazed from his sublime encounter with kale chips, professed to me, “I will eat ANYTHING you bring. Anything.” I believe it.

So even in a rural school without school lunch service, students deserve and deeply appreciate local produce. Serving and eating local foods connects local gardeners to the school, makes eating food fun and interesting, and at least introduces kids to food that is healthy and can be grown in their valley. When a lunchroom full of middle schoolers said a collective “Cheers to Mike,” the farmer who grew our pears, it was impossible not to feel the connections we were making. It’s a start, anyway.

In some cases, Farm-to-School unavoidably takes research, ingenuity, labor, and time; in others, it may just be the easiest thing in the world. But always, building relationships is at the heart of buying and eating local food. That is precisely what makes it such an important ongoing project, whatever stage your institution may be at, because if anything, all of us need better and stronger relationships in our lives. If that can come with a juicy wedge of pear or a sweet, foreign bite of butternut squash, well, all the tastier.

Written by Service Member Zoe Tucker, serving with Somers, Cayuse Prairie, and Bigfork School Districts in the Flathead Valley.