Hands on approach brings success to NW Montana

Hands On Approach Brings Success To NW Montana

Wed 22 Dec 2010

Story by Robin Vogler

Improving your school food program is not a hurdle that can be scaled overnight but a dedicated pursuit that can take years to achieve as Robin Vogler, Food Service Program Director, has discovered over the past 5 years at her school in NW Montana. But do not be disheartened. The results do reward the efforts.

Happy Holidays to everyone! The snow is piling up outside my window as I write from the gorgeous northern shore of Flathead Lake in Northwestern Montana. I am Robin Vogler, Food Service Program Director/Wellness Program Coordinator for Somers/Lakeside MT School Dist. #29. Readers may appreciate that our school has recently earned The Healthier Montana Menu Challenge award for serving nutritious foods in our school cafeterias. Our total population is about 560 students K-8. We serve breakfast and lunch and an after school snack. This is a low-income district, as our scenic valley has been hit by numerous economic hardships. Approximately 50% of our families qualify for free and reduced meals.

This is my fifth year administering the food program. I replaced a 48-year veteran who had done her best work long before my arrival. The year previous to my stewardship, the kids were served commodity hamburgers every Wednesday and gas station take-out pizza every Friday. Most actual cooked food was brown & served from the freezer or can to the table. Student participation was limited. I inherited one full time employee and two part-time and all of them had worked for the district from 15-20 years. The pace quickened considerably and the workload definitely increased. Not everyone could, or wanted to step it up. It took time for the staff to become proficient.

From the start I’ve been hands-on, implementing fresh, from-scratch cooking and doing most of the baking. We utilize many of the USDA recipes and have tweaked them a bit to add fiber and vegetables to the sauces. One of the first changes made was the addition of a fresh salad bar that I bought used from a local restaurant supplier. Food themes rotate cyclically and include a chef salad, fresh fruit, Mexican and a Caesar salad theme. Fresh soups, which are a great way to utilize leftovers, and whole wheat rolls, are available every day. Presentation and eye-appeal are a priority, serving on colorful trays and baskets minimize an institutional look.

Kids love variety and having choices. After the first couple of weeks, the few who asked, “where is the white bread?’ stopped asking. Most of the students accepted that chocolate milk would only be served once a week and we have since eliminated it altogether. My staff and I meet and greet every student on the serving line with a smile and a first name. We’ve hosted a number of taste-testing’s and conducted student surveys. Eventually, we added a grab & go line at the Middle School.

I am an avid supporter of Farm to School programs. Prices are largely negotiable with independent growers and people are graciously willing to help when it comes to feeding kids. I can offset some of the cost through menu strategies, serving a couple cheaper-to-produce meals a week with one higher priced meal. One way I stretch my hamburger is by adding pureed lentils to sauces. We serve a lot of beans and legumes, yellow and orange vegetables, leafy greens, low-fat dairy and whole grains, all part of the criteria for the Healthier Montana Menu Challenge. The students have learned to like the food and to trust us. We still serve pizza, only now the fresh crust is whole wheat and there is butternut squash puree in the red sauce.
School budgets are incredibly tight and I look for creative ways to raise funds, including making and selling Flathead cherry ‘School House Jam’ and participating in the PTA annual fundraiser.

When I announced at a board meeting that I am now teaching a nutrition class elective, a member asked “Why would anyone take that class?” “Because, kids love to eat and to cook food”, was my reply, and it has proven true. Among the topics we explore, students learn to read labels, log their fruit & vegetable consumption and cook while reducing fat & sugar in kid-friendly recipes.

• Anyone wishing to check our website for postings of monthly menus can find them here.
• The Missoulian Newspaper recently wrote a nice piece on our program, you can read this here.
• For more information on the Healthier Montana Menu Challenge click here.

About the author:
Robin Vogler is the Food Service Program Director and Wellness Program Coordinator for Somers/Lakeside MT School Dist. #29


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