Schools in Montana have had to make numerous adjustments to schedules, classes, and mask requirements. But Huntley Projects Schools wanted to make one thing, the way they feed students, remain the same.
The staff is small, but they recently were awarded a series of big grants that helped them boost the kitchen and maintain the quality of meals.
"We have eight staffers in the kitchen here. Every single one has the same goal in mind, and that is to serve our kids the best quality meal we possibly can,” said Ginger Buchanan, food service manager for Huntley Project Schools, Wednesday morning.
Before the pandemic hit, Huntley Project was serving meals on regular lunch trays. But the pandemic changed that.
“We had to start putting prepared food in bags. So, that would mean already prepared and packaged sandwiches, chips, snacks, everything.
Buchanan said that after adapting to this new system for a while, students started to become bored of the meals. Buchanan decided to apply for grants available to school lunch programs across the country.
“I won the grants and we were able to purchase an Oliver machine,” Buchanan said.
The Oliver Machine is a food packager that uses paper trays and plastic sheets. Prepared food, hot or cold, is loaded into trays and run through the machine, which then seals the food with a plastic sheet.
“It’s like a TV dinner, and they are ready to eat,” Buchanan said.
At this time, the Oliver machine is only being used for the school’s breakfast, as they have decided to start serving lunch on trays again.
“We started that yesterday (Tuesday). That has excited these kids so much because it gives them that excitement that things are coming back. That things are going to be normal again,” Buchanan said.
The seven grants that the school won came to a total of $130,000. With the money, they were able to purchase the Oliver, an external 16-by-10 freezer, a globe style 40-quart mixer, two portable standalone warmers, two smokers and other kitchen supplies.
Buchanan said the smokers are something that she and the lunch staff have been looking forward to.
“My dad was a Pit Master and so I brought that with me to Montana. With that smoker, we are going to be able to smoke our pulled pork and chicken. We will do barbecue chicken plates. We will do anything you can consider smoking on the smoker, from brisket to pulled pork to chicken to anything. We are going to try it,” Buchanan said.
Buchanan said that almost everything that leaves the cafeteria lunch line is made from scratch and locally sourced.
“We serve local bread; we make our own bread. We serve local beef; we have a local milk company that delivers our milk. We take a lot of pride in serving everything local and making everything from scratch,” Buchanan said.
She said that buying local food is one way to ensure that local farmers, cattle raisers and other producers can make a profit. She said they are always looking for new local producers.
Buchanan said their scratch-made pizza dough comes from a recipe from a Huntley Project teacher, who owns a pizza restaurant near Polson.
Buchanan said that she and the lunch staff can cater to the needs of all students, whether they are gluten-free, lactose intolerant or other dietary restrictions.
Buchanan said that one of the main things she wants to do is help the school save money.
“All of the purchases that we have made have not cost the taxpayer one dime. All these purchases have been made through grants. We are very proud of that. Everything that we are doing to save money, to serve these kids, is saving our taxpayers money,” said Buchanan.
Buchanan said that she has received plenty of phone calls, texts, and Facebook messages, thanking her and the lunch staff for going above and beyond to serve quality meals to their kids.
“We love these kids, so I don't want them to be any different than I treat my boys at home,” Buchanan said.