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Kids may not know it, but they'll be eating more Montana-grown fruits and vegetables this year in Missoula schools.

Melons from Dixon already made their debut on lunch trays. Peaches from Paradise got washed, halved and pitted.

"Those melons are so good and so flavorful," says Wanda Braae, cook and cashier at Chief Charlo Elementary School.

"And the peaches. Tasty."

On Thursday, hot-lunchers got Montana-grown carrots - "carrot coins" - that were grown, hand-picked, washed and sliced at Common Ground organic farm in Arlee.

"You can't buy that kind of flavor from your usual vendors," says Ed Christensen, assistant director of food and nutrition services for Missoula County Public Schools.

It is part of a continuing Farm to School campaign that now involves the University of Montana, Salish-Kootenai College, elementary and secondary schools in Missoula, area ranchers and growers, and other organizations interested in local foods.

Last year, Missoula County Public School pilot program introduced Montana food primarily through two main-meal events that featured Montana foods as one-day star attractions.

This year, the district's hot-lunch program is using Montana produce on a regular basis, slipping them onto menus whenever possible.

Flour from Wheat Montana is already in regular use and apples from the Bitterroot made their way to the lunchroom. More fruits, vegetables and other products may be added in the future, Christensen said.

In Arlee, Common Ground grows the carrots served in Missoula on Thursday. The farm has access to a commercial, U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved kitchen for processing, a way to have "value-added" produce from the organic farm, said manager Chris Dement. Common Ground could grow the food, but if Missoula has to process it, the deal would be less attractive and convenient.

Common Ground can now chop its own romaine lettuce, shred or slice carrots, and is trying something new - shredding and freezing organic zucchini, to be used by schools later for cooking and baking. It and 13 other producers are working through the Western Montana Growers Cooperative, which links restaurants, schools and other groups with local food producers.

"I really hope this is just a stepping stone, that it works and we can add more schools in the future," Dement said.

"Having a program in the public schools has been a lifelong dream for me," said Dement. "My wife and I have kids, and we're thinking about them. … We want to see them grow up and eat healthy food."

And to know taste.

"I don't see how, if they've actually eaten one of our carrots, kids could say they don't taste a difference from what they usually eat. The flavor is so much better than commercial carrots."

And uniqueness: Dement is saving his weirdest-shaped carrots, hoping to host a Funky Carrot Day around Halloween. "I want them to know that all food is not perfect looking," he said.

In September alone, MCPS will use about 5,000 pounds of fresh, local produce, according to Ariel Bleth, the Missoula Farm to School Program coordinator.

At Chief Charlo Elementary Thursday, Cameron Hegel and Tristn Bailey, both 6, didn't know their carrots came from Montana. But when they heard, they talked about other carrots they've known at farmers markets and in family or friends' gardens.

"These really taste good," said Bailey between bites of carrots and macaroni and cheese.

"Crunchy," Hegel agreed.

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