Beets Galore: The Full Circle of Farm to School
Guest post by Nicki Jimenez, FoodCorps Fellow
FoodCorps Fellow Nicki Jimenez.
Last February, as a FoodCorps service member in Montana, I guided a healthy, local product all the way from the farm into classrooms on a large scale. It all started with a perfect storm of beets: local Montana growers had an abundance of them and I knew that they were a great vegetable to use for Valentine’s Day lessons with students.
As the FoodCorps service member at Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center (MMFEC) in Ronan, Montana, I was in a unique position. MMEC is a fully inspected and certified community-based food processing center, so I was extremely well situated to carry out FoodCorps’ mission of connecting kids to real food. They’re positioned between the Western Montana Growers Cooperative (WMGC) and some of the biggest and most committed K-12 buyers of local food in Montana. Not only do they have the equipment to process fresh fruits and vegetables, they have staff members who are knowledgeable and experienced in food safety and product development.
Over the winter, I leveraged our processing staff’s expertise to develop new beet products—different cuts, frozen raw cubes, and roasted cubes. In early February, I rallied orders for beets from eight school districts in WMGC’s distribution area. FoodCorps members in other districts bought boxes to use in the classroom or cafeteria. Nearby districts bought roasted beet cubes to serve as a cooked Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) snack. WMGC dropped off 775 pounds of local beets, MMFEC processed them, and WMGC distributed to the schools.
Five of the eight districts that received deliveries are small, rural communities with populations under 5,000; three have under 2,000. But thanks to enthusiastic large buyers like Jenny Montague, the Food Service Director in Kalispell, and bold small-district buyers like JB Capdeville, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Coordinator in Polson, we fulfilled small orders. Without pooling orders to achieve volume, it is economically infeasible for WMGC to distribute or MMFEC to process the local produce. Coordination is essential to creating access to healthy, local foods for small, rural schools in Montana.
Many times, my involvement with helping schools procure local product ended here: in the school kitchen. This time, though, I took a couple more steps to bring students a deeper experience with the local food in their classrooms. Working with champion teachers in each grade at the elementary school, I scheduled beet lessons with eleven classes. A local farmer—Nicole Jarvis of Ploughshare Farm—visited each class with me. Her four year-old daughter passed around beet seeds for students to examine as we discussed how beets grow. Nicole even led the fourth graders in some beet math, asking them to calculate how much space on her farm it took to grow the beets for their class—and their school!
Beets were a (potentially scary) new vegetable for most of the students, so we first made sure everyone understood the “don’t yuck my yum” principle and then promised a fun sticker to whoever tried at least two bites of beets. Every student raised his or her hand, holding a beet cube high into the air, and cha-cha-cha-ed, “we love remolacha!” (that’s “beet” in Spanish) then bit into the roasted purple vegetable. Pretty much everyone joined the Two Bite Club that day, and there were many rave reviews.
The farmer grew the beets. The farmer came to the classroom to eat the beets she grew with students. And I got to orchestrate all the steps in between. This is what it means to be a FoodCorps member at MMFEC: facilitating the full circle of farm to school.
Nicki was a FoodCorps service member in Ronan, MT for two year, and is now the FoodCorps fellow in Arizona.