Peter Kerns is a FoodCorps Service Member in Missoula.
The most exciting and memorable landmark in the Central Kitchen is, according to the 60 2nd graders on their recent field trip, our giant walk-in freezer.  In a thank-you note to the kitchen staff, one young student wrote, “Thank you for showing us the walk-in freezers.  They really froze me!”  Other big hits on the kitchen tour were the 80-gallon steam-jacketed kettles and the elevator-sized rotating ovens. 

Central Kitchen Bulk Storage

But, Russell School 2nd graders were visiting the kitchen on Oct 24th for many reasons beyond being awed by the large equipment.  They were there to learn about where their food comes from, to plan a locally-sourced menu for the entire district, and to express their creativity and individuality by designing their own personal pizzas.
As some of our most regular customers, the Russell Bears were a great group to tour the Central Kitchen.  Russell School has one of Missoula’s largest free and reduced lunch programs at 57%. Additionally, Russell School is also a part of the USDA’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables snack program for which the central kitchen sends small apples, plums, bananas, or carrots to the school everyday at snack time. 
When visiting the 2nd graders in their classrooms we started to brainstorm some menu items to include in Russell’s local meal day. Reigning in the students’ enthusiasm and creativity proved to be more difficult than I had anticipated. One student, for example, was adamant about serving local pumpkin pies. When we asked him whowas going to prepare the 2,000 pies to feed each of the 6,000 students in Missoula County Public Schools, he said his mom would be willing to bake 12 of them. Another difficult task in attempting to plan a balanced, healthy, and local meal was hitting all of the required components: a local vegetable, fruit, protein, and dessert with locally-sourced ingredients. This required yet another lesson on Montana agricultural products.

Local kale chips are a frequent menu item for public school students in Missoula.

Ultimately, bringing the students to the kitchen was a phenomenal learning experience. They left with a better understanding of the challenges the central kitchens faces in preparing their school lunch such as the massive scale that the food service staff has to cook for in addition to creating well-balanced, nutritious meals. While the students ate their personal pizzas, we finally came up with a local menu that would work for our large, complex system and would also please 6,000 kids: Super nachos with local tortillas and local beef, crinkle-cut local carrot coins, local apples, and a local cherry crisp for dessert! This experience with the Russell Bears taught me the power of giving students agency in meal planning and preparation. With a little nutrition education and context, a group of second graders successfully planned a healthy, locally-sourced meal for thousands of fellow students in Missoula.

Betty, Central Kitchen Staff Member, shows off local pinto beans!