As the nation celebrates School Lunch Heroes Week, Choteau Public Schools students and staff are proud of their food service program, which received a letter of commendation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service.

“Thank you for your extraordinary commitment and hard work in planning, preparing, serving and distributing safe and nutritious meals, while setting students up for success,” Cindy Long, acting administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, wrote to Choteau Public Schools head cook Cathy Campbell in March.

She said that Campbell and her staff have leveraged program innovations like alternative meal service models and novel community outreach strategies to ensure that Choteau students are fed and engaged.

Lunchroom heroes

Members of the Choteau Public Schools school nutrition program are, from left: aide Hope Linquist, assistant cook Cheryl Gertge, dishwasher Meade McCormick, aide Dodie Sekora and head cook Cathy Campbell.

“On behalf of FNS, I would like to extend my sincere appreciation for your hard work and a heartfelt thanks for going above and beyond to ensure our nation’s children continue to receive safe and nourishing meals,” Long wrote. “You are true school nutrition heroes. We are grateful for your perseverance, ingenuity, creativity and immense dedication to the mission of the Child Nutrition Programs.”

Long said the Montana Office of Public Instruction shared Choteau’s school nutrition story with the USDA “as an exemplary representation of how local program operators were empowered to ensure that no child goes hungry during this time.”

“It was quite an honor” to receive the letter, Campbell said in a recent interview, adding that the success of the Choteau school breakfast and hot lunch program belongs to the kitchen team and school secretaries Julie Shepherd and Michaela Zwerneman and other school staffers who have helped during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Members of Campbell’s team include assistant cook Cheryl Gertge, kitchen aides Dodie Sekora and Hope Linquist and dishwasher Meade McCormick. “We get along great. Everyone has the same goal and the same care for children,” Campbell said.

Campbell’s breakfast and lunch program serves about 200 students and 25 adults every school day. Since March 13, 2020, when COVID forced all the schools in the state to go to remote or distance learning, the Choteau lunch program has been funded through the USDA’s summer school nutrition program, meaning that all children, ages 0 to 18, in the community can receive daily breakfast and lunch meals for free. That program is set to expire at the end of this school year on June 3.

Campbell is just finishing her second year as Choteau’s head cook, and despite the hours and that her 60-year-old body is on its feet every day from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., Campbell loves her job. “I’ve never had a day I didn’t want to go to work,” she said.

She loves seeing the little kids get excited about breakfast and lunch and has gotten to know a lot of high school kids this year. “They aren’t just a number to me; they are a person,” she said of the students.

Campbell, who grew up on her parents’ DeBruycker Charolais farm and ranch in the Dutton area, never thought she would be doing this, but in a way, it fits. She loves children and loves cooking.

“It’s definitely not for the money, but the rewards that come with it are so much more,” she said, adding that she wants to make a difference in children’s lives and have the chance to help out parents whose hectic, stressful lives make it difficult to provide breakfast and lunch for their kids.

Choteau Public Schools Superintendent Chuck Gameon said “Cathy has a ‘kids first’ attitude that is pervasive amongst the lunch crew. They all work tirelessly to provide quality meals and to accommodate as necessary for special dietary needs. In her time as our head cook, the number of students who eat per day has increased approximately 75%. I think this is indicative of her commitment to preparing delicious home-made meals.”

The environment in the cafeteria is very positive, open and accommodating for staff and students, Gameon said. “Even with limited interaction because of in-person serving restrictions, Cathy has worked to develop relationships with students in the school. She is a caring and compassionate individual and this makes a difference for our kids.”

Molly Stenberg with the Montana Team Nutrition program submitted Choteau’s school nutrition program to the USDA. Stenberg said the Choteau program successfully overcame the challenges of safe food service during a pandemic “to serve school meals in positive, creative, and possibly replicable ways.”

Stenberg said Choteau’s program includes:

•Innovative menu planning, such as creating colorful and appealing, from-scratch meals delivered to the classroom.

•Using innovative alternative meal service models to serve the meals.

•Providing school nutrition staff training or support related to meal preparation and alternative meal service models.

“Cathy Campbell is doing amazing work in Choteau Public Schools,” Stenberg wrote in her submission. “She works closely with her support staff, Cheryl Gertge, to provide delicious, home-cooked meals to the students in Choteau. They pride themselves in making the best from-scratch meals for their students. They know kids get processed meals anywhere, and they want them to have fresh meals at school. They adopted their system to serve elementary students in the classroom and high school students in the cafeteria. They purchased the Cambro trays with removable lids to allow for safe service in both locations. They serve scratch meals in their remote meal service model as well, which is even more impressive.”

Campbell says all those scratch meals would not be possible without the Choteau Beef to School program that she helped establish along with the Teton County CattleWomen and members Misti Redland, Carli Neal and Darlene Yeager.

Stenberg wrote that Campbell has been a leader in serving local beef and is working to expand the nutrition program’s fresh fruit and vegetable snack program that serves kindergarten through sixth-grade students. Campbell is also a resource for other schools looking to start beef to school programs.

“She frequently attends beef to school meetings and always gives great ideas for other schools in how to find local beef and how to get beef donated,” Stenberg said. “She has strong partnerships with the ranching community in Choteau and has helped connect other schools to those resources, even during COVID-19.”

Campbell also participated in the 2020 Montana Cook Fresh Leader Institute, a virtual 10-day class in which she learned about USDA rules and regulations, program management and culinary schools. “By participating in this class, she demonstrated a deep commitment both to her school nutrition program and to finding innovative ways to continue feeding kids during COVID-19,” Stenberg wrote.

Campbell said student participation in the school lunch program jumped up sharply during her first year with the program as she and Gertge began integrating donated local beef, bison and pork into the menu through the Beef to School program, in which local ranchers donate animals and cash donations from other generous supporters are used to pay for the processing and transportation.

“It’s all about the quality and the kids notice the difference,” she said.

Participation further increased after Choteau Public Schools went to remote-learning only on March 13, 2020, and when the program was expanded to serve all children 0-18 with free meals. When students returned to the classroom last fall, numbers stayed up. On April 30, Campbell and her team fed lunch to 225 students and 25 adults.

On average, she is serving 90 to 100 breakfasts and 200 lunches a day to students.

Choteau Elementary School teacher Rachel Christensen said most of the students in her classroom eat a school lunch every day, but students aren’t the only ones who appreciate the cafeteria crew.

“For me, the best part of the hot lunch program is that a salad option is offered to the teachers,” she said. “I eat the school salad almost every day. The salad trays include mixed greens, a variety of fresh vegetables, a fruit, and a protein/dairy.”

From March 13 to the first week of June, 2020, the Choteau school nutrition program packaged a cold breakfast and a hot lunch up for families to pick up in front of the elementary school and take home to their students.

“It was so nice with the kids being at home and the parents still working, they didn’t have to worry about a good meal for their kids,” Campbell said.

Gertge, who had worked at and managed a restaurant, was great help in designing the program that enlisted the help of other school staffers to prepare, package and hand out the meals.

“Between the two of us, we were able to get it up and going as fast as we could,” Campbell said.

Gameon said that Campbell even contacted daycares in Choteau to offer to prepare meals for their children.

This year, when students returned in person in August, Campbell’s crew began packaging food on trays and carts, which they delivered to the elementary classrooms where children ate.

They prepared other trays for the junior high and high school students to eat, and created a secondary cafeteria in the foyer of the high school. A few (18) high schoolers were allowed to eat, socially distanced, in the elementary cafeteria every day.

Now, as COVID-19 restrictions have been eased, every day a different elementary class gets to eat in the lunch room, but the food is still delivered pre-served on the trays.

Campbell is really looking forward to the day when she can serve the buffet-style meals and get to talk with the kids and make sure they get their food piping hot and in just the right portions.

“I really want the kids to be getting what they want,” she said.

She remains excited about meal planning and preparation, particularly when she gets to work with locally produced meat. “It’s just amazing,” she said of the Beef to School program. “This community has been so giving.”

Because the school nutrition program has been reimbursed by USDA at a higher rate during the pandemic, it has been able to pay for the processing of donated meat, and money the school would have spent purchasing commodity beef can now be used for more fresh fruit and vegetables.

The Choteau school nutrition program belongs to the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program that provides elementary students once-a-day snacks of fresh fruit and vegetables twice a week.

“It’s been good to expose them to different things they haven’t tried,” Campbell said.

Making school meals from scratch rather than using pre-processed and fabricated food is worth the extra time and effort, Campbell said. “It’s a little more work, but in the long run, it means so much to me that these kids realize they are not just a number to us,” she said. “We care so much about them. We want them to have good food and feel special.”