HELENA - In the Flathead Lake community of Somers this year, two young women from New York and California built a garden that's growing vegetables for the public school food service - and acting as Exhibit A in the school's nutrition education program.
In Red Lodge, a new worker hopes to set up a system where local farmers and ranchers will supply food to the school on a consistent basis.
And in Boulder, yet another food "foot soldier" is manning a school garden and running a farmers market booth that sells goods grown and baked by Boulder schoolchildren.
These are members of Montana's FoodCorps, who've been quietly operating in cities and towns across the state for five years now - and whose model has been adopted on the national level, with the launching this summer of FoodCorps in 10 states with 50 new workers.
The idea behind FoodCorps is not only to bring locally produced foods into schools, but also to combat obesity and improve nutrition among kids, by showing them firsthand how healthy food is produced and serving it to them at school.
Montana, however, is not one the 10 states with national FoodCorps workers this year, because it's been running its own program since 2006 and felt it could expand more on its own. This year, Montana's FoodCorps more than doubled its work force to 13 people and fanned out into more rural communities.
"We knew we couldn't get as many people as we wanted as a first-year start-up (within the national FoodCorps)," says Crissie McMullan, the Missoula-based project director and founder of Montana's FoodCorps. "The best way was to keep Montana separate ... to get more people on the ground."
Four of the 13 work only during the summer months, yet nine are in Montana for the year, involving kids with school gardens, talking up nutritional eating and networking with local ag producers. They're posted in Glendive, Forsyth, Red Lodge, Ennis, Boulder, Livingston, Dillon, Ronan and Kalispell.
McMullan came up with the FoodCorps idea about six years ago, after she helped start a program that brought locally produced food to the University of Montana's food service.
She was getting calls from school districts that heard about the program and wanted to start their own version, asking her to give a presentation.
But McMullan says she knew it would take more than her going to the school and giving a speech.
"It wasn't going to be someone coming in and inspiring the food directors," she says. "It really takes a lot of on-the-ground logistics. There are so many details to be worked out. It takes someone to be working on the ground, on a daily basis."
Thus was born the FoodCorps, initially with four Montana Campus Compact/AmeriCorps workers in 2006, stationed at Montana State University in Bozeman, Salish-Kootenai College in Pablo, University of Montana-Western in Dillon and the Missoula and Bozeman public schools.
Campus Compact runs student service groups in the state and gets funding from AmeriCorps, the national service organization funded by the federal government.
McMullan says the FoodCorps members were taught to build a broad base of local support for the program, so it could survive after they left. Most of those initial programs are still operating.
As FoodCorps evolved, McMullan says she and others began hearing about rural school districts doing innovative things with gardens and local foods but that needed help to expand and "bring their programs to the next level."
So Montana FoodCorps applied for and received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant last year to expand into rural areas, launching that aspect this year. McMullan says she had twice as many towns requesting a FoodCorps worker than there were workers to go around.
"It really showed me there is a lot of energy around community-based food systems right now," she says. "They really wanted to have someone come in full-time and help them."
The newest batch of FoodCorps workers, hired through Montana Campus Compact, arrived in Montana this summer. They're paid $850 a month and get a $5,000 education "award" they can use toward graduate school or paying back student loans. More than 80 people applied for the nine yearlong slots.
At Somers, two FoodCorps workers - one from New York, one from Southern California - spent the summer at the local school, building a garden that is growing pumpkins, zucchini, onions, garlic, lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and herbs.
Robin Vogler, the school food service director at Somers, says she'll be using the garden as a "classroom extension" for her nutrition education class, which she's been teaching for years. Vogler also has been buying beef and produce for the school from local producers for several years.
"They had the time to do the things that I've always wanted to do," Vogler says of the FoodCorps workers. "And they were great ambassadors for the school with the community."
Lea Howe, a 24-year-old FoodCorps worker assigned to Boulder in July, is working with kids at a school greenhouse that was just completed and has started some other projects, such as selling non-perishable, locally grown dry goods at the farmers market in reusable bags sewn by the children.
Howe says she's always been interested in food and nutrition and looks forward to helping the community achieve what it wants to achieve.
"It's very interactive, very dynamic work," says Howe, who is from Washington, D.C., and went to school in New York City. "I wanted to get my head out of the books and really get my hands dirty."
In Red Lodge, FoodCorps member Alyssa Charney plans to talk with local farmers and ranchers, see what products they could sell to the school on a regular basis, and perhaps make some longer-term arrangements.
"(Red Lodge) has a pretty active group that is working on local foods, but getting it into the school is something that is pretty new and exciting," she says.
The school is using potatoes harvested from a Bridger-area farm last week and Charney plans to arrange for some students to help with the potato harvesting in the future and meet with the farmer.
FoodCorps in Montana has been financed by AmeriCorps, USDA grants and plenty of help from local groups and the "host" communities, which provide money and in-kind services, even sometimes housing the FoodCorps workers for free.
McMullan says she hopes FoodCorps in Montana can keep expanding and keep the ball rolling on establishing school gardens and connections between locally produced food and those who eat it - and encourage healthy eating across the state.
A great deal of its success, she says, can be traced to local residents' desire to make a difference on the issues of food and health.
"There are a lot of people who are concerned about what kids are eating," McMullan says. "They're concerned about their (agricultural) communities. Community members want to support their local farmers and ranchers and they want to encourage healthy foods for kids."