With a few thousand servings of "walking tacos," Missoula County Public Schools made history on Tuesday as likely the first public K-12 district in the nation to serve lunch made from locally-raised steers and processed by students at the school's agricultural center.
"We have researched it, others have researched it, and from what we can find, we’re the first district in the nation to be taking beef that is not only processed by our students and ground by our students but put back into our production (for lunch)," explained Stacey Rosmiller, the district's food service supervisor.
The walking tacos, which consisted of scoops of meat and toppings in a bag of chips, were made from 531 pounds of farm-to-school grass-fed ground beef processed in the districts's Agricultural Center meat processing lab. Students processed the beef, and all the steers are grass-fed in the county, with some coming from local ranchers.
"So they talk about farm to school, and farm to school is very important. We’ve been a huge supporter, but this is truly school to farm to school," Rossmiller said. "The kids are learning about raising the cattle, slaughtering and processing, the whole nine yards. And it’s coming back into our program, so it’s groundbreaking, and it’s very exciting to see happening."
Ag Center students started learning the art of butchering and processing meat in the spring semester of the 2018-19 school year and worked over the summer. The Ag Center, which was paid for by the Smart Schools 2020 bonds passed by Missoula County voters in 2015, also has a 100-acre farm, classrooms and lab spaces to teach kids about science-based agriculture topics.
"What's happening today is this is the first time that beef we've purchased from our ag department out at Big Sky High School will be served to all of our elementary and middle schools, and it will also be served out at Big Sky High School," Rossmiller said.
Students from Hellgate, Sentinel, and Big Sky all have the opportunity to enroll in classes at the Ag Center that provide relevant work skills experience in the construction and engineering lab, animal science center, meat processing lab and greenhouse.
"Farm to school used to be if we had apples from our growers in the Bitterroot it was huge, it was exciting, which it is, but this just takes it to a whole different level," Rossmiller continued.
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She noted that since she's been working for the food department for 19 years, she's seen a noticeable change in student's attitudes toward where their food comes from.
"It's been interesting to watch the shift," she said. "We work closely with Garden City Harvest, and in the first grade, we start teaching kids about local agriculture. It's huge to these kids. They definitely are very aware of what they’re eating, they’re very aware of locally what we’re able to use and bring in, and they take a very active role."
Nikko Kujawa, a seventh-grader at Washington Middle School, said he was very interested in local agriculture.
"A lot of people don't know where their food comes from," he said. "I think we should support farmers because they power the country."
Rossmiller said Thomas Andres, the director of the MCPS Ag Center, is integral to the program as well.
"It started by us asking, what would happen if we could take beef that was raised and processed by our students and put back into our program for our students?" she recalled. "And then it kind of snowballed from there. It’s an exciting partnership. We’re so excited to watch it grow."
The school district's meat processing lab is certified by the Montana Department of Livestock under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the licensing authority for meat processing facilities.