When Rhiannon Cox bit into a crunchy green leaf in the Lowell Elementary cafeteria Wednesday, she smiled. The kale chip tasted like popcorn.
“I can save this for on top of spaghetti,” the kindergartner said, dreaming of the kale and tomato sauce concoction she planned to eat for dinner.
She pulled out the remaining chips from her cup, placed them in her palm and rubbed her hands together, letting the crushed pieces fall back inside. When she finished, she looked down at the tiny green flakes stuck to her skin.
“I need to wash my hands,” she said, then ran off to the bathroom.
Rhiannon is excited to eat kale chips in school lunches next year, and she’s not the only one. Lowell Elementary students sampled the healthy snack Wednesday, and many of them agreed they would like to see it in the lunch line.
After conducting taste tests at three elementary schools with the help of Garden City Harvest, Missoula County Public Schools has decided to include the chips in the lunch menus of its elementary and middle schools in the fall.
Edward Christensen, MCPS assistant supervisor of food and nutrition services, said he’d like to bring the vegetable into the high schools as well, maybe in a different form such as soup.
“It’s exponentially ridiculous how much vitamin K is in them,” he said. “(Kale) is the best-kept secret there is.”
Kale belongs to the same vegetable family as cabbage, collards and brussels sprouts, and it can grow in Montana from March through the fall.
Christensen ordered Wednesday’s kale from a company in California, but from here on out, the kale served at MCPS schools will come from Missoula’s own PEAS Farm, where Garden City Harvest finished seeding 500 kale plants on Monday. The plants will spend three weeks in a greenhouse and then will be planted.
“It’s the perfect Montana vegetable,” said Jason Mandala, community education director for Garden City Harvest.
Kale can survive in temperatures as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and Mandala hopes to be able to serve it to students through November.
Christensen said the MCPS central kitchen staff, which prepares meals that are then distributed to schools, will receive raw kale from the PEAS Farm in the fall, season it with a little salt and oil and then send it to schools to bake. At 400 degrees Fahrenheit, kale takes roughly 12 minutes to cook into crispy chips.
“If the kids like them, they can go home and make them with their parents,” Mandala said.
Third-grader Miriya Hurley-Acevedo does like the snack, but she’s not so keen on the “baby puke green” color. She said an entire mouthful of kale chips can be a little overpowering.
“I like eating them, but little pieces at the time,” she said. “You don’t get too much of the flavor, but you get just enough.”
Her class made kale chips last year, and she’d love to see them on her lunch tray in the future. The friends sitting around her Wednesday felt the same way.
“With kids, all they really need to be sold on something is to see someone else excited about it,” said Kierstin Utter, an AmeriCorps Campus Corps volunteer working with Garden City Harvest.
MCPS participates in a farm to school program that incorporates local crops in school lunches. The district also works with Garden City Harvest to teach children about vegetables by growing school gardens and leading field trips on the PEAS Farm.
During a recent field trip to the PEAS Farm, a disappointed student came up to Stephanie Potts, school garden coordinator for Garden City Harvest. He loved tasting the many vegetables at the farm, but was upset that Potts had forgotten to let the students try kale. After all, it was his favorite when he visited the farm the year before.
“We like to tell kids it will help them see in the dark and grow strong bones, and it will turn them into superheroes,” Potts said.
After hearing that message Wednesday, kale chips flew off the trays and into the eager mouths of the students.
“Every one of these kids is rolling out of here with green teeth today,” Mandala said.
Amy Sisk is a journalism student at the University of Montana and an intern for the Missoulian. She can be reached at (406) 523-5264 or firstname.lastname@example.org.