Katie Wheeler is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Kalispell, MT.

Jenny Montague, Kalispell District 5 Food Services Director, shares my vision of serving more healthy, locally-grown foods to kids. And even though this is her first year on the job, she’s already done amazing work, incorporating Montana beef patties, Flathead cherries, and local carrots, among other products, into school lunches and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program.

She’s ambitious, and wants to do even more. Recently, though, she wrote an email exploring what’s holding her back. “The biggest thing that keeps getting me with…[procuring] local food is our evident lack of food processing ability, in the valley and within food service.” 
Our five elementary schools lack full kitchens and all lunches are made at Flathead High and then transported to the various schools.  Jenny went on to write, “The raw foods themselves are completely affordable to buy locally – at least the ones that are easier to grow here – squash, carrots, root vegetables, etc.”  For us, as far as I can tell, it’s a matter of capacity: we don’t have the space or staff hours to add in extra time to cut, peel or core produce, so it must be received already in that form.
The building blocks for a local food system already exist, and this October our schools served green bell peppers from a supply chain succinctly captured in the picture below. From right to left is the farmer (Harlequin Produce’s Kaley Hess), the aggregator (Western Montana Growers Cooperative’s Jim Sugarek and Dave Prather), the processor (Karl Sutton of Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center), and the distributor (Jon Clarenbach of Charlie’s Produce).
It all seems pretty flawless.  Still, we need more models like these to really fill the needs of our school district’s 5600 students.
One of the problems is that there are farmers north of Kalispell who’d like to sell to the district, but for them to ship their produce two hours or more to Ronan’s Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center is simply not practical.  Jenny described the situation best: “Many of the local Flathead farmers have contacted me, and I am trying my best to represent everyone – however I am missing a link.  Either I need to create a more substantial processing facility within food service, requiring big investment in equipment and training labor – or a processing facility needs to exist in Kalispell.” 
To better explore this issue of the lack of processing and local food infrastructure, I spent this past weekend at the first-ever Five Valleys Food and Agriculture Summit, hosted by MMFEC and the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition.  The summit brought together farmers, ranchers, processors, distributors, extension agents, restaurateurs, professors, and local food advocates.  Together we learned from examples of current partnerships, met potential new stakeholders, and brainstormed ways to improve the system.
In the end, we didn’t solve the challenge of rebuilding a local food system.  We did, however, make important connections with key players who can help us take more steps in the right direction.
In fact, some of us have decided to host a similar meeting in January to continue the conversation, particularly focusing on the needs of our local schools.  By working together, we aim not only to change the menu in Kalispell District 5, but to build a better food system for us all.

 Two key factors for successful meetings: Great food. Great views.