A few weeks ago, a group of Ronan 2nd graders were asked to identify what Montana is famous for. Their list included: “big sky, wilderness and lentils.” Born and raised in Montana, I know that more than twice as many cows as people live in our state — about 1 million people and 2.5 million cows. However, a little known fact is that Montana is the top lentil producer in the nation! We have many reasons to be proud of lentils. Here are some reasons why:
1) Lentils are good for you. Many people know they contain protein and fiber, but did you know pound per pound they have more iron than ground beef, more antioxidants than blueberries, and more potassium than a banana? Holy health food, Batman…get out your spoon!
2) They’re cheap. Buying dried lentils doesn’t cost much…cost of nutritious food can make it a challenge to eat healthy. Lentils are cheap and have a shelf life that can rival Twinkies, but without added preservatives. Dried lentils can sit in a jar in your cabinet for years. Unlike beans, they cook quickly so there is no need to soak them overnight (which I personally can never seem to remember to do).
3) They’re delicious and people love them. In Ronan School District #30, we set out to introduce students to lentils.
Shh…don’t tell, but our food service director has been sneaking lentils into meals with ground beef to increase the nutritional value of meals for years!
This year we decided to take them center stage. Second graders made lentil taco salad, flavoring lentils with their own homemade taco seasoning and eating it with chips, tomato, lettuce, and salsa. One student asked, “Can we make this again next time?” while another student said, “This is the best day ever.”
We took it to the district level and taste tested Montana taco lentil beef. Out of all the students, 657 students loved it, 56 liked it, and 32 brave souls tried it, but didn’t like it yet. The next week in the lunch line, a student asked food service staff when they could expect to eat lentils again.
Then in class students made their own Montana red lentil hummus. Hummus is a new food for many of our students. It went over poorly in a taste test earlier in the year. However, after making hummus with their own hands, the tables turned. Pablo After School Club had a 100% “loved it” rate. Much to my amusement, more than one student licked globs of hummus off their plate when the dipping chips and carrots were gone.
4) They’re good for the land. Lentils, like other legumes fix nitrogen into the soil. It may sound crazy, but lentil roots have houses for bacteria to live in. To pay rent, these bacteria use nitrogen taken out of the air, a product that is useless to a plant, and transform it into a form of nitrogen that plants can’t live without. Most plants, including wheat, take nitrogen out of the soil to grow, and leave the soil depleted. Instead of depleting the soil, lentils add nitrogen to the soil. Therefore, lentils are a good crop to rotate with wheat and many other crops. They reduce the amount of nitrogen that needs to be added to the soil. They can also reduce pest and weed problems that can come with growing the same crop in one place for a long time. Many organic growers in Montana choose to grow lentils for these reasons. If you are interested in learning more about this I recommend a book called Lentil Underground by Liz Carlisle.
5) They’re shaped like flying saucers. A surprisingly good selling point with eight year olds!
Ronan School District #30
In ten years, I will be in Montana with a big garden, a family, a fun community friends, and a meaningful, challenging, not-quite-full-time job working for a better world.