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Montana school district joins national program to move away from pre-made meals

One of seven districts nationwide to join the "Get Schools Cooking" program
Oranges in the kitchen at Hardin High School
Posted at 3:30 PM, Mar 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-13 17:30:32-04

HARDIN - The Hardin School District is freshening up its menu after joining a nationwide three-year program aimed at providing fresher, healthier meals instead of pre-made, heat-and-serve options.

The "Get Schools Cooking" program stems from the Chef Ann Foundation, a Colorado-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting whole-ingredient, scratch-cooking in K-12 public schools.

Hardin is the fifth district selected for the program and one of seven districts nationwide to be approved.

Not every district is eligible to join — they had to have already started taking steps towards the transition—and the Hardin schools' nutrition department is grateful its hard work is paying off.

“We were selected because we are ready to take the next step. We weren’t selected because we need help, we were selected because we are doing such a great job," said Hardin School District Director of Nutrition Marlo Spreng. “I’ve told the staff, I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t have the staff I had. Because some people aren’t ready. And we are ready. So it’s something to be proud of."

Spreng worked with Ellie Ross, the district's Farm-to-School coordinator, to fill out the application and complete interviews.

“The first thing that happened, Ellie and I were lucky enough to travel to Bellingham, Washington for a workshop. Other than it being super fun and a great time in a beautiful place, we learned so much,” Spreng said. “We learned what the program is going to entail, what the steps will be. They come on-site for an assessment, and they assess our program top to bottom. Finances, food, recipes, HR, everything. And then they compile a report to help us move in the direction of scratch cooking."

Chef Ann posing with Marlo and Ellie in Washington State
Chef Ann posing with Marlo and Ellie in Washington State

Program participants are shown ways to provide better options through workshops, learning courses, assessments, and more. They are also given a one-time system assistance grant of $35,000.

Spreng said scratch cooking in schools isn't as easy as it sounds due to the logistics behind it.

“Scratch cooking in theory is easy. We used to do it,” Spreng said. “Getting back to it, and following the regulations. Make the paperwork work, and make the finances work. That's the big challenge.”

Although it comes with challenges, Spreng said made-from-scratch food is the best option.

“Often with these heat-and-serve items, they are healthy, they are quick, and they do follow the nutritional guidelines. But they don’t taste good. So they are healthy, but they’re very uninventive. And people want to duplicate that at home, and that’s not what we’re looking for. I’d like them to duplicate from-scratch cooking at home,” Spreng said. "The staff wants to make the kids happy. The staff wants to cook good food. They go home and cook great food. And we want to do that here. We want to bring their skills from being parents, and cooking at home and doing their home-cooking. Why can’t we do that here, when we’re feeding our kids here?”

French toast being prepared at Hardin High School
French toast being prepared at Hardin High School

According to Spreng, delicious doesn't equal unhealthy.

“First of all, it is delicious. Like I said before, we don’t want to just serve healthy food. We don’t want the kids to think healthy food doesn’t taste good," Spreng said. "So it’s very important that we can do things and follow the regulations, you know, low salt, whole grains, and get them to taste good."

She knows a thing or two about cooking.

“I’m a professionally trained chef, and I’ve worked in the restaurant business my whole life. I went to Johnson and Wales University, which is a cooking school, way back a long time ago. And have worked in restaurants since then," Spreng said. "So this (job) was a big change for me, but I’m super happy here and I love making the kids happy."

Oranges being sliced in the kitchen of Hardin High School
Oranges being sliced in the kitchen of Hardin High School

Staff is thrilled to see their meal program continue to improve.

Bethany Fuchs, the principal of Hardin Middle School, said Friday she is very proud of the hard work it took to get to this point.

“They were (previously) trying to, once a week, create an entrée that would have more of that home-cooked feel to it. And I think this is just the next step so we can have more of those opportunities. The nutrition department has worked really hard to keep and retain their quality staff. Now that they have, this is another opportunity for them to really show their stuff and to be able to bring that forward. Because of their consistency, our students have noticed an increase in the variety, in the quality of the food, and I think they’re just really excited," Fuchs said. “I am so very appreciative of Marlo and Ellie for bringing awareness to our community about all of the good food choices that are out there, and how to make those happen in a large school setting. So you don’t always have to be just given or handed something. That you can create and flourish with all of the healthy options, the variety."

Salad bar being set up at Hardin High School
Salad bar being set up at Hardin High School

Fuchs said the children are receiving these healthy options at no cost.

“Because we are a Title I school, we have the free and reduced lunch categorization for every student. So they all receive free meals," Fuchs said. "But even more so, our kids appreciate that they get that quality every day.”

And the children still have access to their favorite items on the menu.

“They still provide fun and normal meals. Like, you know, hamburgers and nachos, which is every middle school kid’s favorite,” Fuchs said. “Just yesterday, they made like a quiche. With sausage and egg and vegetables, and it was wonderful. A recipe that I could use."

Staff preparing meals at Hardin High School
Staff preparing meals at Hardin High School

But it's not just the staff that's excited.

"Everything’s fresh. Comes from the school,” said Hardin High School student Adora Tatsosie on Friday. “They’re good for you because they’re fresh, and they don’t come from a bag or like ready-made meals. Everything’s made fresh in the kitchen. I’d rather have it from scratch."

And Spreng has noticed other students feeling the same way.

“The high schoolers are allowed to eat off campus. And so that sometimes helps us judge how we’re doing because they have the option to leave," Spreng said. "Our high school numbers are doing great. And they’re better than they were last year and just getting better."

To learn more about "Get Schools Cooking" or the Chef Ann Foundation, click here.

“We’re excited. The first question is how much work is it going to be? Everybody wants to know that," Spreng said. "But, like I said, it will be a gradual process."