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'They really put their love into it': Sentinel students taste test 'Montana Marinara'

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Students and staff at Sentinel High School were among the first in Missoula to sample the new, homegrown marinara sauce coming to schools across the state.

The sauce, referred to as “Montana Marinara,” features squash, carrots, onions and more, grown in the state, for a truly tasty product.

“It’s honestly really good,” said Eli Brother, a freshman at Sentinel.

“It’s just nice to know that everything’s being sourced from an actual good source … It’s just so nice that it’s honestly homegrown by people that love growing stuff,” he continued later. “They really put their love into it.”

Brother was eating lunch with Zane Goicovich, a sophomore, who had packed a lunch from home that day, but said in the future he’d probably opt for the school lunch option knowing that the ingredients were locally sourced.

The sauce was featured in two different entrée options at lunch on Friday. Ed Christensen, an assistant supervisor for the district’s food and nutrition program, also provided samples of the sauce with breadsticks for others to try.

Montana Marinara was a resounding hit with students at the cafeteria. Eventually, they ran out of samples.

Some students didn’t even notice the wide variety of vegetables used in the recipe.

“It tasted really good,” said Zander Pinoon, an 11th-grader. “With all of those ingredients, I was really surprised.”

The process of incorporating more locally sourced ingredients in school kitchens across the state has been a passion of Christensen’s over the last decade.

“My idea was originally, if the USDA could deliver commodities to a local processor and then they in turn incorporate local products to bring a value-added product that would work for all of us school districts, you know, who wouldn’t do it?” Christensen said.

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 the “Montana Marinara'' to school kitchens.

The Northwest Food Hub Network is a collective of farmer-owned cooperatives 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.

All of the ingredients used in the recipe are sourced through the Northwest Food Hub Network from farms through the Western Montana Growers Cooperative. The sauce is designed to be affordable and accessible to all K-12 school districts that participate in the National School Lunch Program.

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 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.

Christensen hopes that in the future they will be able to add more Montana-grown options to menus at school cafeterias.

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Kindergarten registration for MCPS opened on March 1. The district urges parents to register children who will be 5 years old on or before September 10, 2022, sooner rather than later to ensure a spot in their neighborhood school. 

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