School kitchens across the state are looking for new ways to incorporate healthy, locally sourced ingredients in their daily recipes, including the staff at Target Range School District.
On the last day of school before the holiday break, Devin Kavanagh, the food services director at Target Range, served his students and staff locally sourced lentil meatballs for the first time.
“When I started about a year and a half ago, it’s always been my goal to improve the food,” Kavanagh said. “So after getting my bearings straight here, I started to really look into that and ... there’s a lot of options out there.”
One of the groups he’s partnered with for nutritious ingredients is the Mission Food Enterprise Center, a shared-use food processing and manufacturing facility in Ronan that has the ability to prepare fruits, vegetables and other menu items en mass.
Mission Food Enterprise Center also prepared the lentil meatballs for Target Range’s nutrition program. The ingredients for the meatballs include lentils, mushrooms, potatoes, ground beef, egg and rolled oats.
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“To be able to read all the ingredients on a box is crucial,” Kavanagh said.
“It’s just so exciting to be able to have a healthy item like that,” he continued. “I’m hoping the kids are going to like it. We’ll see what they say.”
Kavanagh and his kitchen staff scurried around, slicing fruit, boiling noodles and swapping trays of meatballs from the oven to a heating rack in preparation for lunch during a recent school day.
First up in the cafeteria were the Target Range kindergartners.
A majority of the students moving through the line opted for the meatballs and marinara sauce with their pasta, while only a few chose just noodles.
“I want a lot of meatballs,” one student in line said to Kavanagh.
While kids are often regarded as picky eaters who turn their noses up at vegetables, that hasn’t been Kavanagh’s experience at Target Range. To him, kids are more open to trying new things than people give them credit for.
“I think it really comes down to how things are prepared, and then that first bite they take,” he said. “So having the lentil meatballs made with those simple ingredients, I don’t think they’re going to be turned away too bad.”
Another way Kavanagh incorporates locally sourced ingredients into his menu is by using meat that has been processed just down the road from Target Range at School House Meats, Missoula County Public Schools’ agriculture education center. Students at School House Meats raise livestock, slaughter it and professionally process the product.
But soon, he will have another locally sourced, nutritional item to incorporate into Target Range’s nutrition program.
In an effort to connect more of Montana’s schools with locally crafted menu items, the Office of Public Instruction partnered with the Northwest Food Hub Network to bring a “Montana Marinara” to school kitchens. The sauce features Montana-grown squash, onions, carrots and more.
The Northwest Food Hub Network is a collective of farmer-owned cooperative food hubs in Montana and Washington with the mission of connecting organizations, like school districts, hospitals and colleges, with local, sustainable food products.
“Montana Marinara is a win-win-win product — it supports small Montana farmers, it brings delicious, sustainable, locally sourced food to students across the state, and it celebrates our state’s history of supporting agriculture,” said Kaylee Thornley, coordinator of the Northwest Food Hub Network.
Target Range will be incorporating the Montana Marinara into its menu in February, Kavanagh said.
The National School Lunch Program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture serves 80,000 students every school day in Montana and nearly half of those meals are usually served for free or at a reduced price, according to the OPI.
Due to the COVID pandemic, the USDA began offering school lunches at no cost to all public school students by expanding the National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option. The meal service flexibility has been extended through the end of June 2022.
“USDA will remain relentless in ensuring our nation’s children get the critical nutrition they need,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “States and districts wanted waivers extended to plan for safe reopening in the fall. USDA answered the call to help America’s schools and child care institutions serve high quality meals while being responsive to their local needs as children return to their regular routines. This action also increases the reimbursement rate to school meal operators so they can serve healthy foods to our kids. It’s a win-win for kids, parents and schools.”