Lentils are the new superheroes at West Elementary School in Butte Montana. Throughout the month of May students got to learn about lentils, our May “Harvest of the Month” item. In December, the Butte School District started serving one local item each month for our new Harvest of the Month program. It has been a great way to teach food and nutrition to kids one item at a time and to get kids really excited about trying new fruits, vegetables, whole grains and proteins. Starting a program like this one is also a great way for schools to begin buying local foods to prepare and serve for lunch. I have learned a lot from piloting our program this year, especially during this last lentil month.
As part of my FoodCorps service I am working with the Butte Director of Central Services, Mark Harrison. He runs the entire school food program, which is a huge job I’ve realized. We started Harvest of the Month in December as a way to commit to buying local food throughout the year, and so far Mark has purchased local butternut squash, apples, potatoes, whole grain rolls, beef, and lentils.
I have taught classes about these items and done some cafeteria events in order to get students interested and excited to try these new foods on the lunch menu. I myself am learning about these food items as I prepare lessons for the students. Did you know that grains come from the seed part of grass plants and that whole grains use the entire seed? To teach this concept to the students, a parent and I brought wheat shafts, wheat berries, whole wheat flour and dough into the cafeteria and showed the kids how whole grain bread is made.
I realized after the whole grain roll cafeteria event that most students, parents, and teachers had no idea that the Butte Pubic School District was serving local food. My lonely posters in the cafeterias just weren’t enough to spread the word. Being a new program, it seemed like we were scrambling to decide on and purchase our local item last minute, leaving little time to teach classes about it. So in March our Farm to School Committee decided to focus on creating educational activities and promotion for May’s Harvest of the Month as a sort of test run at West Elementary School.
One of our committee members suggested that students guess the number of lentils in a jar to win a prize. I counted out around 17,600 lentils and put them in a small mason jar (ok, I counted 800 in a Tablespoon and estimated from there). Throughout May, the school librarian had the students guess the number in the jar. This competition got students excited to try this new mystery food! I also did a lesson with all of the 2nd grade classes. We sang “The Lentil Song” and talked about all the activities we do with our bodies that require protein. To familiarize students with the variety of lentils that are grown in Montana, we also looked at six different kinds of lentils and matched the lentils with their names, like Black Beluga and Petit Crimson.
The day before my class with the 2nd graders, I happened to read an article about the “Farm to Table” movement, which argued that in order for the movement to truly support local, sustainable agriculture we need to support not just the popular crops like tomatoes, but also the crops that help improve soil health, like nitrogen-fixing legumes.
This article inspired me to include the benefits of legumes in my lesson, and at first I was stumped at how to teach 2nd graders about nitrogen fixing but then decided to have the students act out a skit. The parts included nitrogen in the air, nitrogen in the soil, tomato and carrot plants, and lentils. The lentils helped capture the nitrogen in the air and brought it down to the soil to help the tomato and carrot plants grow, giving the lentils their superhero status! The students loved the play and they were asking when the cafeteria would be serving these superhero lentils that helped them grow strong and helped the soil.
The students were thrilled to finally get to try the lentils last Tuesday. We did a taste test with the Kindergarten, first and second grades. The results from the taste test were mixed, with about half of the Kindergarteners and first graders liking the lentils and more than half of the second graders liked the lentils. I have learned a lot from our six months of working to source and serve local food in the public school system. I have learned about the importance of planning ahead and communicating clearly with producers and food service staff, which gives us time to expand the education around the items we are serving. We have already set out our Harvest of the Month schedule for next year starting with summer squash in September!
I also have learned that I can’t make Harvest of the Month a reality all on my own and need to enlist the help of enthusiastic parents, teachers, principals and community members to educate students and spread the word.
The most important lesson I’ve learned lately, though, is that when I can turn a fruit, vegetable, grain or protein into a “superhero,” it greatly increases the chance of kids trying it in the cafeteria!
This post was written by Andi Giddings, the FoodCorps service member in Butte, America. Andi will be serving with FoodCorps Montana for another year, and we are so exited to see the Harvest of the Month program develop in Butte Public Schools!