The Hamilton community is serious about the connection between locally sourced food and community health.
Grace Nichols, manager of the Specialty Crop Business Development program at Ravalli County Economic Development Authority, is a member of the Hamilton School District’s Farm to School Committee. This group of school administrators, teachers and community members has been working together to put into action the goals they set when they formed last summer. The goal of the group is to increase school gardens, increase the amount of local food served in the school, and to increase agriculture education in the classroom.
In the past Daly Elementary has had a school garden adjacent to the community garden. The school’s portion was neglected and in November a clean up day was held. About half of the area was cleaned up and now Nichols is researching funding opportunities for weed mat and soil. She applied for and was successful in getting a $500 Youth Garden Grant from KidsGardening along with a collection of gardening tools, putting them one stop closer to being able to actually plant the garden.
“We’re hoping to put down weed mat this spring, put in some garden boxes, and at a minimum plant some perennials,” said Nichols. She said what they really need to make this project successful is “community buy in.”
So far some support has come from Bryan Dufresne, who heads the Keystone after-school program for the school district. “Those kids want to do some gardening,” said Nichols. “We’re hoping to have the beds in by April so these kids can just put some seed in the ground.”
Nichols said Farm to School is one her “passion projects.” She said it fits in nicely with her position at RCEDA. “Because this program is so new,” said Nichols, “I get to take it in the direction I’m interested in.” Nichols has been on the job since May, making connections in the ag community. Her position is partially funded by USDA and her current contract runs through August 2025. She works to connect local farmers and ranchers and ag-related businesses with the government resources they need.
Amy Harvey, a 3rd grade teacher at Daly, is also a member of the Farm to School Committee. She said when the committee formed last spring, they attended training provided by the Farm to School Institute. Hamilton was one of three schools in the state to be selected for the program, where they received training, mentorship, and planning help.
“I want Farm to School to be part of our community and want it to be part of my classroom,” said Harvey. “I really believe in connecting our school with local food.”
Harvey said when they started on the project, less than 1% of the food being served was locally sourced. That’s now up to 11%. The schools serve beef from Hamilton Packing, produce from the Western Montana Growers Co-op, and greens from Local Bounti. The school’s food services director is also part of the committee, and as it turns out, says Harvey, the cost of purchasing this local food is comparable to buying food that is not local. “Any increase is negligible,” she said.
Harvey said purchasing more locally sourced food for the school is part of their three-pronged goal which also includes revitalizing and using the school garden, and featuring “harvest of the month” items.
Harvest of the month is part of the education component of the group’s goal of increasing ag education in the classroom and along with the harvest of the month, the children will get to visit four different farms during the year.
Harvey said the group is still developing a budget with the plan of continuing the Farm to School program indefinitely into the future. They’ll be going after grants and later on they plan to make specific requests, probably by the end of this spring.
“There’s been lots of excitement and lots of talk over the last few years,” said Harvey. “Now we want to incorporate this into classroom instruction” as a regular part of the curriculum.
Harvey said the committee is lucky to have Jay Stagg from Whitefish as an advisor. The Whitefish Farm to School program is a model in the state. In addition to Nichols and Harvey, the committee, which meets monthly, includes the food services director, the school superintendent, school board members, teachers and community members. Their motto is: “Our farmers, our food, our families.”
For more information contact Grace Nichols, 406-375-9416, email email@example.com or visit the website at https://www.hsd3.org/page/farm-to-school-program