By. Rachael Jones, Farm to School Director, Livingston (Montana) Public Schools
We typically think of farm to school as incorporating local produce, dairy, grains, and meat into school meals, but let’s not forget fish! Along the banks of the famous Yellowstone River, innovative students in Livingston, Montana are growing native trout in an aquaponics system just a few steps from the cafeteria as part of a new Trout to Tray program.
Livingston, Montana is a small rural community of 7,000 with a significant population of at-risk youth. MSN Money reported in the summer of 2015 that Livingston was the poorest town in Montana. The percentage of students eligible for free and reduced school meals is nearly 50%, indicating significant household food insecurity. Most children currently do not meet minimum intake requirements for fruits and vegetables as specified by Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These startling facts demand a healthy change for Livingston. Fresh fruits and vegetables are essential to children’s healthy eating. They make their bodies feel better and their minds work better. Fortunately, in nine years of operation, Livingston Farm to School has become a highly collaborative community initiative focused on taking the schools’ culture of food to new levels.
The Livingston School District received a U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm to School Implementation Grant in 2013 to support its early farm to school work. This federal funding helped its schools lay the foundation for Livingston Farm to School operations including school garden infrastructure, aquaponics greenhouse systems, sustainable food production, and a salary for the farm to school director, or Farmer Educator.
While elementary schools are a natural target for farm to school efforts, Livingston Farm to School also creates opportunities for older students to learn about food and place-based agriculture. Throughout the school year and summer months, Livingston Farm to School offers opportunities for middle school, high school, and college students to earn academic credit as they learn about food systems and work in the greenhouse and gardens at each of the schools.
In 2014, and in partnership with Montana Roots, the Aquaponics Learning Lab at Sleeping Giant Middle School (SGMS) was opened. Montana Roots is a nonprofit in Livingston that focuses on using aquaponics as a teaching tool for creating sustainable food systems. As Sam Mascari, Montana Roots Executive Director, explains: “It’s a beautiful thing to see students get excited about science, agriculture, sustainability, and the natural world; all hidden inside the framework of an aquaponics system. As fish feed the plants and the plants in turn clean the water for the fish, the system creates a living, breathing classroom that even the most “removed” or “uninterested” students get excited about.” The new building furthered Livingston’s farm to school vision by providing David Pettit’s seventh grade students with a hands-on setting to explore food science, STEM studies, and local food systems.
In 2016, building on the success of the SGMS Aquaponics Learning Lab, Montana Roots partnered with Livingston Farm to School, for the second time, to extend their reach into the community and public schools. Together they raised funds and renovated the under-utilized Park High School (PHS) greenhouse – now called the Plant Growth Center. This 1,125-square foot facility includes a finished workroom and aquaponics and soil-based greenhouses. Located adjacent to the central kitchen, where 800-900 school lunches are prepared daily, student-grown fruits and vegetables harvested from the Plant Growth Center are served in school meals, lessons, and snacks.
Much of the rebuild was completed by Jamie Isaly’s PHS Construction students and when the Plant Growth Center was completed, classes such as Life Sciences and Horticulture started using the new space to teach students soil-based and aquaponics growing techniques. Students and interns work in the Plant Growth Center year-round to supply starter plants to all Livingston school gardens, produce vegetables for the district’s central kitchen, experiment with multiple vegetable production methods, monitor environmental conditions, and more. Rachael Jones, Director of Livingston Farm to School, points out that “It’s a problem-rich environment for problem-based learning.”
The space also serves as an on-campus hub for Livingston Farm to School’s new Trout to Tray program. As part of the 2016 pilot project, PHS Life Science students worked in the Plant Growth Center daily to safely harvest fresh vegetables and native Montana Trout. “Trout to Tray instilled a sense of pride, purpose, and responsibility in students. This experience brought science to life and provided an opportunity for students to connect and learn from a number of community members and experts,” explains Life Science co-teacher, Gretchen Burlingame. PHS Science Teacher, Alecia Jongeward adds, “As a science teacher, the Trout to Tray program has given numerous opportunities to incorporate real world situations into my teaching. We don’t have to only study photosynthesis and cellular respiration, we see it. The Nitrogen Energy Cycle is apparent, and in our face, within the aquaponics system. Also, it gives us endless opportunities to learn how to trouble shoot arising problems: pH levels, jumping fish, aphids, just to name a few.” Trout to Tray has taken significant teamwork with community partners including the Livingston School District; Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; Montana Roots; Trout Culture; Mountain Sky Guest Ranch; and many others.
In its first year, Trout to Tray developed into an eight-month project that started when students returned to school in the fall. Between October and May, community food system experts joined with students to learn and manage the system, and eventually harvest fish with their vegetables. “This project provides a great opportunity for kids to do hands-on research and interact with professionals in varying fields,” says Scott Opitz, Fisheries Management Biologist of Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. Opitz visits classrooms to teach fish biology and wise river use. His associates also assist with sourcing hatchery-raised fish for the system. During Trout to Tray’s pilot year, students, educators, and community professionals determined that Rainbow and Cutthroat Trout could thrive in tandem with plants within the Plant Growth Center’s winter climate. One Life Science student who was introduced to aquaponics in middle school said, “I liked science, but this class has made it so I love science.”
The ultimate goal is to feature the fish in school meals. PHS student and Farm to School intern August Schuerr learned how to process the trout at Trout Culture, located in Belgrade, Montana. Unfortunately, students were not able to eat the fish in 2017 because regulatory kinks with the health department were being worked out.
The local Mountain Sky Guest Ranch purchased the first batch of Trout to Tray fish. The Mountain Sky staff is especially interested in supporting projects in rural areas where resources and services are limited to address community challenges. Guests at the Ranch enjoyed Chef Jonathan Romans’ House-Smoked Trout Crostini with Saffron Rouille. Everything is in order so students will enjoy the fruits (and fish) of their labor in Spring 2018.
As a component of a larger school food system inquiry lead by the Life Science class, students involved in Trout to Tray received state-wide recognition as champions of the SMART (Saving Money and Resources Today) Schools Challenge through the Montana Governor’s Office. The students presented their project at the State Capitol and gave a tour to Lieutenant Governor Cooney. Notably, SGMS has led the state in their SMART Schools Projects involving sustainable food and energy for several years.
The PHS Plant Growth Center not only benefits high school students; the whole Livingston community is invited to make the most of the space. Livingston Farm to School hosts events in the Plant Growth Center throughout the year, like the Edible Garden Bike Tour, Kids’ Cooking Camp, Summer LINKS for Learning, and the Montana Farm to School Conference. Livingston Farm to School is creating a movement where youth are engaged and act on healthy foods. Completing the food system trinity in Livingston, Livingston Farm to School often joins forces with the Livingston Food Resource Center and Livingston HealthCare’s Farm to Institution program to further a culture where locally-sourced foods are promoted and the community thrives.
Currently, at least one third of Livingston schoolchildren regularly participate in academically-rich farm to school activities. All farm to school lessons are hands-on, place-based, and project-based and focus on the agricultural and nutritional aspects of Montana’s unique food economy. Program activities are designed to involve students of all ages in the full spectrum of the school food system, to the greatest extent possible. Jones offers a distilled version of the program’s comprehensive work: “Teach. Grow. Eat. Repeat. All of our projects and programs involve these basic pillars to develop food-literate leaders and smarter, healthier consumers.”
Student engagement numbers are growing now that Livingston Farm to School is a new 2017 FoodCorps service site. During the 2017-18 school year, about 300 K-5 schoolchildren in Livingston will receive in-depth, hands-on lessons with FoodCorps service member Michal DeChellis. FoodCorps connects kids to healthy food in school. AmeriCorps leaders serve in high-need schools across the country teaching hands-on lessons in growing, cooking, and tasting healthy food; partnering with farmers and food service teams to create nutritious and delicious school meals; and collaborating with communities to inspire a school-wide culture of health. “As part of our Montana Harvest of the Month program for September, every kindergarten class helped make and taste test raw zucchini noodles topped with school grown basil pesto. They devoured them! Half of the students asked for seconds! It’s so true that kids LOVE to eat food they’ve grown and prepared themselves.”
While Livingston Farm to School places great emphasis on classroom engagement, it also helps to direct the school food service budget toward Montana producers. Jones works daily with Michele Carter, School Food Service Director, and her staff to increase local food sourcing and improve the nutrition of school meals. The team is well on its way to meeting its 2017 local food procurement goal. For example, through a recent deal with the Park County Stock Growers’ Association, only locally-raised beef is being served in school meals this year.
Carter explains, “The Livingston School District Food Service Department is excited to be involved in the cutting-edge progress being made by Livingston Farm to School. This years’ increase in produce production from our school gardens and greenhouse has brought a revitalized spirit to both the kitchen staff and the students. The Trout to Tray program is opening new opportunities in school meals. Students are thrilled with the new and increasing opportunities to work, raise, harvest, and enjoy a bounty of fresh, school grown foods.”
While farm to school programs are taking root throughout Montana and exist in all 50 states, Livingston Farm to School remains an innovator and one of very few programs nationally that raises edible fish in an aquaponics system to be featured in school meals.
Jones has big plans to expand Trout to Tray into a larger school greenhouse system that can produce more fish, fruits, and vegetables for the school district and the community while providing engaging educational and life skills experiences.
Livingston Farm to School is currently a school-based program whose primary source of income is private donations; however, it could not do its work without the support of its diverse community. Livingston Farm to School is truly thankful to every person, business, and organization that contributes to its success. Learn more about Livingston Farm to School, its programs, partners, plans, and how you can help make a real difference for many. Contact Livingston Farm to School Director, Rachael Jones, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
Rachael Jones has been a professional horticulturalist for over 10 years in the Livingston community and beyond. Her career began unofficially in her Grandmother Ethel’s garden, and officially as an organic gardener at Chico Hot Springs Resort. Her impact on Livingston’s local food system has expanded through her role as Livingston Public Schools’ Farmer Educator. As a mother, and having been a commercial organic gardener herself, with first-hand understanding of the idiosyncrasies of school food service, she understands well how to teach others to market to institutions. Hired in 2015 to invigorate Livingston’s Farm to School Program, Ms. Jones has improved and maintained gardens, remodeled a greenhouse to include aquaponics production (now called the Plant Growth Center), taught classes to K-12 students that include advanced horticulture concepts, and recruited many new partners and donors to Livingston Farm to School.