31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: #Hunger Doesn’t Take a Winter Break

Yesterday I was doing a little exploring in a new-to-me Billings neighborhood and I drove down a dead-end road on the outskirts of town. There sits, as my friend Ginny Mermel describes it, the “second worst trailer park in town” – muddy roads with thawing snow, dilapidated homes, rusty cars and many young residents based on the school bus just turning around after dropping off students for winter break.

While most children are excited about a two-week vacation with holiday celebrations and presents under the tree, winter break has a whole different meaning for kids who live in poverty. It means two weeks without school meals – two weeks without the guarantee of a hot breakfast and lunch every day. Thanks to my friend and colleague, Virginia ‘Ginny’ Mermel (far left) and the Billings Public Schools BackPack Meals Program, the situation is not as bleak as it could be in our community.

Archie Cochrane Ford donates $2500 to the BackPack Meals Program (May 2014)

Archie Cochrane Ford donates $2500 to the BackPack Meals Program (May 2014)

Ginny received one of the 2014 Hunger’s Hope Award from the Montana Food Bank Network (MFBN) in November. In presenting this prestigious award, MFBN noted … “Ginny has the challenging task of feeding very low-income, food insecure students in Billings through school pantries and BackPack programs. Many of the students she serves are emancipated or homeless and rely on the assistance provided through her programs in order to eat. She has steadily expanded the reach and scope of child hunger programs in Billings and the surrounding area while working tirelessly to ensure stable funding and administration for child hunger programs.”

While I see the work of Billings Public Schools BackPack Meals Program and Teen Food Pantry Program personally, I know that thousands of schools and other volunteers work year round to bring healthy food to families in need. Here are two of the many recent Facebook entries that impressed me.

The San Diego (CA) Unified School District Farm to School Program posted this photo on the Friday before their break: “Since today was our last day of school before the 2 week winter break, we donated our leftover fresh produce to 11 San Diego food rescue agencies including Feeding America San Diego, Bayview Charities, various churches, mental health agencies, etc.! Trying to do our part to help those in need.” Rather than letting beautiful produce go to waste, they made sure that it went to those in need.

Produce Donations from San Diego School District

Produce Donations from San Diego School District

In Greensboro, North Carolina, the Guilford County Cooperative Extension School Garden Network had a great idea on December 16tth: “The Donation Station at the curb market at Yanceyville St. was a hub of activity Saturday as shoppers donated mounds of beautiful produce for our food insecure population here in Guilford County. Volunteers Melissa Tinling, FoodCorp service member and Cynthia Nielsen, GCCES School Garden Network Coordinator for Farmer Foodshare.”

Donation Station in Guilford County, North Carolina

Donation Station in Guilford County, North Carolina

It’s not too late to make the holidays better for hungry children in your community. Wherever you live your local donation station is as close as a food bank, food pantry or mission. Confused about what to donate? How about MILK – one of the most requested, least donated food items? You can donate milk directly or through The Great American Milk Drive. Thanks to America’s Milk Companies and Farm Families, you can help fill the milk gap – and have your donation matched gallon-for-gallon. Honestly,  it doesn’t get much better than that!

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Six Back-to-School Lunch Spots: Where I would take Julia Child for a bite (Part 1, Western states)

As a devoted fan of Julia Child since the days of the earliest days of The French Chef on black and white TV, I know that she was always a culinary and educational trendsetter. Back in 1995, she was a co-founder of Days of Taste®, a national discovery-based program of The American Institute of Wine & Food for 4th and 5th graders. “In this age of fast and frozen food, we want to teach school children about real food – where it is grown and how it is produced – so that they can develop an understanding and appreciation of how good food is supposed to taste.”

Last week was the 101st anniversary of Julia Child’s birth – an event that I always honor personally and professionally. As I was updating the daily entries on School Meals That Rock, I realized how much Julia Child would love to see the very real revolution that has take place in school meals. Fresh, local, lovingly prepared and beautifully served breakfasts, lunches, snacks and even suppers are served across the USA, not just in a few foodie enclaves like Portland (OR) and Berkeley (CA), but in a wide range of school nutrition programs with a real commitment to good food for hungry students.

If I could do some culinary time travel and take Julia to lunch, as Bob Spitz was lucky enough to do in Dearie, here are six school cafeteria hot spots we would hit in the Western states. These schools vary widely in location, demographics and staff training, but all have one thing in common: They are among the growing trend of districts dedicated to serving made-from-scratch food, supporting local farmers and ranchers, and teaching children how good food tastes.

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Lake Stevens, Washington, Mollie Langum, Nutrition Supervisor

Mollie and her staff are true farm-to-table champions, as showcased in their “I Made A Rainbow at the Salad Bar” event. Washington-grown produce is not just for special occasions though; it’s an every day item in Lake Stevens cafeterias (just east of the metro Seattle area). With the right kind of “peer pressure,” students help promote produce, with giant strawberry costumes and as 5th grade fruit/veggie ambassadors.

ImageBethel, Oregon, Jennie Kolpak, RD, Nutrition Supervisor

Down I 5, in Eugene, Oregon, Jennie has developed a very impressive Harvest-of-the-Month program. Willamette Valley apples, pears, melons, carrots, bok choy and more show up on Bethel menus. This made-to-order Willamette High School panini with balsamic marinated veggies is just one delicious example. This year, they are going “hyper-local” with a new commercial size greenhouse on school grounds.

ImageSolvang, California, Chef Bethany Markee, Viking Café

Trading fine dining for a cafeteria, Bethany leads a Central California school food revolution – as this Honey Roasted Organic Fennel for the salad bar clearly shows. Thanks to a partnership with Santa Ynez Valley Fruit and Vegetable Rescue, the Viking Café is able to regularly serve fresh, organic produce and thanks to a new school herb garden, the seasonings will soon be very local as well.

ImageChandler, Arizona, Catherine Giza, Director and Wes Delbridge, RD, Supervisor

I bet Julia would appreciate the high-tech side of this large multi-cultural district with its trend-setting iPhone app. And, I know that she would be equally impressed with their personal touch on the 250 hand-tossed pizzas with whole grain, made-from-scratch dough and homemade marinara sauce!

ImageProvo, Utah, Jenilee McComb, Director and Colleen Dietz, Assistant

Breakfast or lunch, Provo’s cafeterias serve freshly prepared, locally sourced meals to the lucky students in this mid-size district just south of Salt Lake City. The school nutrition professionals in each school take justifiable pride in their award-winning program and the Facebook page proudly lists the farms and farmers who grow food for their kitchen. Provo students know where their food comes from!

ImageEnnis, Montana, Tammy Wham, Director and Natasha Hegmann, FoodCorps

It might take us a bit longer to get to Ennis, a southwestern Montana community of less than 1,000 with about 400 students K-12. However, I can guarantee that it would be worth the drive! Tammy and her cooks make nearly everything from scratch and thanks to Montana FoodCorps they now have a greenhouse and school garden (with club and summer camp) for incredible, edible produce year-round!