BOZEMAN – Is this a lunchroom or a five-star restaurant? Montana’s K-12 students may wonder after such fare as Bison Barley Soup, Purple Pirate Potatoes and Cherry Berry Sunrise starts appearing on their school lunch menus this year.

Recipes for those and other dishes were recently published by Montana State University’s Montana Team Nutrition program, which oversaw their development and testing in six Montana schools during the 2021-22 school year. The team is part of MSU’s College of Education, Health and Human Development. It trains and supports Montana K-12 schools in promoting food-based education, fostering positive relationships with food and cultivating healthy school environments.

The project rolled out in early 2021, after the Montana Office of Public Instruction received a $183,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for the development of recipes featuring Montana beets, cherries, grains, squash, lentils and bison. Two of the grant’s objectives were to develop school-appropriate recipes with local foods and to educate students about them.

This recipe,Purple Pirate Potatoes, features locally grown beets, and was submitted by Laura Toeckes from Powers School District. (Photo: MSU)
This recipe,Purple Pirate Potatoes, features locally grown beets, and was submitted by Laura Toeckes from Powers School District. (Photo: MSU)

“This project is a great opportunity to share the uniqueness of Montana agriculture with our students and the rest of the country,” said Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen. “The partnership between my office and MSU’s Montana Team Nutrition continues to focus on student learning while providing locally sourced nutritious meals. I applaud all who were involved in testing and refining these recipes.”

Molly Stenberg, co-director of Montana Team Nutrition, said the team received 30 recipe suggestions, mostly from school food service programs around the state. Six were selected for testing in Montana school districts based on creativity, inclusion of the featured local ingredients, suitability for school nutrition programs and other factors.

But the toughest stamp of approval was yet to come: To advance as finalists, recipes needed to be approved by at least 85% of the kids who tried them. Six that made that cut then were handed to Leah Smutko, chef at Fork & Spoon in Bozeman, who, last summer, test-prepared and served each dish three times to Fork and Spoon patrons ranging in age from 1 to 75. Smutko verified that the recipes were accurate, streamlined for commercial kitchen production and ready to be given to school districts to prepare for student meals.

Bison Barley Soup (MSU Photo)
Bison Barley Soup
(MSU Photo)

Montana Team Nutrition marketed the project to districts that “do a good job of from-scratch cooking and already participate in the Montana Harvest of the Month program,” which showcases a different Montana food each month in K-12 schools and afterschool programs, early care and education programs, health care institutions, businesses and organizations, Stenberg said.

“They know how to do taste-testing with students and incorporate nutrition education in the cafeteria and the classroom,” she said. “The goal is to make kids aware of all the good foods that are grown locally. Then they learn about them in the classroom and taste them in the cafeteria.”

Bison and Lentil Chili (MSU Photo)
Bison and Lentil Chili (MSU Photo)

Students in the six districts that tested the recipes – Belfry, Belgrade, Gardiner, Monforton, Philipsburg and Somers Lakeside – “increased their knowledge about and acceptance of the featured Montana foods,” Stenberg said. After participating in the activities, students selected correct answers to questions about the foods 86% of the time compared to just 60% of the time prior to the activities.

Before testing a recipe, participating school districts were given a purchasing list so they could acquire ingredients from Montana farmers, meeting the grant’s intention of promoting local food procurement by schools, Stenberg said.

Others assisting in the effort included MSU Extension, which helped promote the recipe contest, and Timeless Seeds in Ulm, which donated the lentils to Fork & Spoon. In addition, the Montana School Nutrition Association, Sprout Oral Health and the Northern Pulse Growers Association contributed $500 cash prizes for the schools that won the recipe contest.

The completed recipes will be shared nationally through the Institute of Child Nutrition and statewide through the Montana School Nutrition Association, OPI and Montana Harvest of the Month.

More information and recipe downloads are available on the Montana Team Nutrition website at (Note: the recipes are written for 50 and 100 serving sizes).

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