Five days a week throughout the school year, the Kalispell Public Schools Food Service dishes out almost 4,500 meals to students in 11 schools, making it the largest restaurant in town. This year the program is trying to improve those students’ diets one meal at a time.
Under new director Jenny Montague, the Food Service is being revamped with a healthier, homemade mindset. Gone are the frequent days of nacho cheese, Pop-Tarts and corn dogs. Goodbye trans fatty acids, highly processed foods and sources of high sodium, sugar and fructose corn syrup. Welcome fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and regional meats, an unlimited salad bar, real juice and smoothies, and yogurt parfaits for breakfast.
Montague, 30, believes cafeterias are an important setting for students just like classrooms. She approaches her food program the same way a teacher does a class, working with the staff of 45 food servers to educate students about what they’re eating and emphasizing the importance of a healthy diet.“Serving unhealthy food is not what this country needs,” Montague said. “Initially the school lunch program was started because kids were starving during the Depression. At this point, they’re starving for nutrients, but not more calories.”
The Food Service program serves all elementary, middle and high schools in the Kalispell district, plus Olney-Bissell and Trinity Lutheran.
“I think there’s such an opportunity in the schools,” she said. “We’re teaching other things – we should also be teaching healthy eating.”
With a graduate degree in nutritional and sustainable food systems, Montague is hoping to cook more meals from scratch and with local products. In a presentation she gave to the school board recently, Montague outlined these goals in detail and sought to dispel a few myths about changing the system, namely that buying local and cooking from scratch is more expensive.
“Food costs can come down with more home cooking,” she told school board members. “If you do it correctly your costs can be equal or lower.”
Montague says the option to buy local or regional food is becoming more economical as high gas prices are raising the cost of transporting food. Last year, the cost of bringing in out-of-state food rose 18 percent, she said. And as the local food movement grows, there’s more quantity, which Montague hopes will lower prices.
There are healthier, more local items on Montague’s mind that are currently expensive, like beef, making it harder to source. One of Montague’s “major goals” is getting rid of stockyard beef all together and using Montana beef, but “it’s really quite a ways down the line because it’s expensive right now.”
So far this year Montague and her staff have overhauled the district-wide menu with new recipes, like ham or turkey wraps, hummus with pita bread, and tacos made with protein-rich beans. Montague hopes by next year to have 30 percent of the food served in schools cooked from scratch and to be 15 percent Montana products. Within three years, she hopes that half the food is cooked from scratch and 30 percent comes from in-state.
“I think that’s something we’ve needed to do for a long time,” Pam Bauer, a longtime server at Edgerton Elementary School, said. “It’s just better for everybody and it keeps our money local.”
Bauer is one of 45 servers in the district, and a vital piece to the program’s success, Montague said.
“Everyone who works for the food service program is doing the job because they want to help feed kids,” she said. “They give 110 percent to keep that vision going.”
One such person is Terry Caudill, a longtime staple in the program and at Kalispell Middle School. Caudill retired from the Food Service at the end of October after 19 years. Caudill has battled lupus, which recently came out of remission, and her doctor recommended she stop working. A large gathering was held at KMS to celebrate and honor her for the passion she has brought to serving meals to kids for almost 20 years.
“It’s hard to say goodbye,” Caudill said. “It’s been an awesome experience. The kids are the main thing for me. It’s fun to go out and the kids say, ‘lunch lady!’”
Caudill said she was motivated all those years to get up early in the morning and start prepping meals for one simple reason.
“Sometimes that’s their best meal they will get all day,” she said.
The Food Service is funded solely by federal money and the amount is based on the number of meals served. Annually the program receives roughly $100,000 worth of food.There was a 7 percent increase in meals served in August and September compared to 2010, which could be attributed to either students’ favorable opinions of the meals or the high number of enrollments across the city’s elementary schools, or a combination of both.
Because of the tight budget, Montague knows change will be hard to come by, which is why she and two students in the Farm to School program at Flathead Valley Community College are filling out as many national grants as they can.
“It is really hard to get the quality you want out of the budget we have,” Montague says.
Another challenge is the central kitchen and its outdated equipment, a concern Montague has discussed with the school board. The main entrees served at schools are made in the basement of Flathead High School, where the central kitchen is located.
Montague said several sections of the kitchen have been shut down and condemned because of asbestos and because plumbing has collapsed. Most of the cooking equipment is out of date and unable to be used to cook from scratch. And once food is made, there is no ramp for trucks to pull up to, so pallets are loaded and sent up ramps in an untimely fashion.
Instead of letting those challenges deter her, Montague is finding a way to work around them while hoping a new kitchen arrives in the near future.
Her motivation is simple. Montague is a Kalispell native and has a young daughter of her own. In other words, she cares about her daughter’s health and the health of her hometown.
“I definitely am invested because it is my home; it definitely plays a role in my emotional investment,” she said. “This is an area that I think is ripe for change. A lot of these changes are easy to make and totally sensible.”
As a way to gather input and helpful ideas for the program, Montague is planning a community meeting in January for those interested in healthy foods in schools. For more information, contact her at email@example.com.