“The gals definitely deserve it,” Principal Brown said of Griebenow and her assistant Mia Babcock. Pictured here is the first-place winning breakfast from Twin Bridges Schools. PHOTO COURTESY OF CINDY BROWN

Feeding the kids

Twin Bridges Schools wins first place in Montana Schools Eats Photo Contes
“Really, what we eat has a huge impact on lifelong health. As individuals, it has a really big impact on the health of families and communities, so if children get excited about healthy food early, it really just affects health for a lifetime,” Jenny Martini, storytelling and communications creator with Montana No Kid Hungry, said.

Twin Bridges Elementary School Principal Cindy Brown received an email from Montana No Kid Hungry, an organization dedicated to promoting plentiful and healthy food for children in Montana, looking for entries into the Montana Schools Eats Photo Contest.

“I said, you know we have such a great lunch program and so much fresh food I feel like this is something worth giving a shot,” Principal Brown said. She reached out to Deb Griebenow, the head cook for the Twin Bridges School District, who was ‘all about it’ and chose to submit for the breakfast category.

“We just did the breakfast because it was a time in the day when we actually have some time to do something like that,” Griebenow explained.

An omelet with fresh fruit and granola was put together and posed for a picture and won first place. Judges for the contest have expanded over the years to include the Office of Public Instruction school nutrition staff, the Montana School Nutrition Association and Montana Team Nutrition in addition to Montana No Kid Hungry.

Montana No Kid Hungry has hosted this photo contest since 2017. “The broader purpose behind it is really to celebrate and recognize school nutrition teams,” Jenny Martini, storytelling and communications creator with Montana No Kid Hungry, explained. “They’re such an important part of the school community, but sometimes they’re not really given the recognition for all that they do,” she continued.

Twin Bridges Schools nutrition staff values healthy meals throughout the entire school day. The Kids’ Pack program through the Gallatin County Food Bank and a Cole’s Pantry grant help further this goal. “When I came to Twin, I wanted to make sure that that was continued, so I tried to beef that up a little bit,” Principal Brown said, who transferred to Twin Bridges from the Belgrade School District which had participated in the Kids’ Pack program.

Kids’ Pack sends anonymous bags of food to students who request it each Friday and is meant to supplement diet over the weekend. However, the type of food is dependent on whatever is donated to the food bank by the public.

Cole’s Pantry focuses on healthy snacks and fruit and vegetable options. Principal Brown applied and received this grant and the fresh options now supplement what students may already receive from Kids’ Pack. Currently, this is available to elementary students only—kindergarten through fourth grade in the Twin Bridges School District— but Principal Brown is looking into expanding the program to the middle school.

Twin Bridges found out they won in the breakfast category a couple weeks ago and will receive a $500 check from Montana No Kid Hungry. Martini explained the purpose of the check is to support food systems in school, perhaps by an equipment upgrade or a staff appreciation party. Griebenow will purchase a new microwave and toaster with the funds.

Griebenow makes choice and from scratch major priorities when serving meals at school. Before the coronavirus, a fresh fruit bar and a salad bar were offered to students. Now, students receive to-go meals that include a pre-made salad or at least two fruit and vegetable options.

If a unique turkey wrap was on the menu one day, younger students are always able to go with ham and cheese for some familiarity. Choice does more than provide options—it creates an environment where students do not feel forced to eat something, which can have negative results in the willingness-to-try-something-new department.

Griebenow estimated the percentage of home cooked meals for students in the district fell around 80%. Hot dish days are popular in the cafeteria, which include options like homemade spaghetti or chicken or turkey casseroles. Breakfast-wise, pancake and eggs are made from scratch, not from mixes or boxes.

“I just think that’s part of our job—to encourage students to try new food they wouldn’t normally eat at home,” Griebenow said.

Where does this drive to provide healthy, homemade food come from? Is it just easier because of the size of Twin Bridges Schools?

Principal Brown would say that is not it. “It’s a mentality. It’s an awareness of the importance of it,” she said. A former restaurant owner who valued local and healthy food and a former employee of the Belgrade School District that had similar values, Principal Brown did not see size as an indicator of healthier school food.

“To really make serving the highest quality food possible, you have to have the mentality to overcome all the challenges,” Martini explained. Challenges that include stretched education budgets that do not always adequately cover school food services, outdated equipment or kitchens and time constraints in terms of preparation.

School food services not only have the potential to spark healthy eating values young, but they are part of a bigger picture of lifelong wellness.

Griebenow has prepared a chicken cilantro wrap with a kale coleslaw for about four years now, and the freshman who were skeptical of the idea grew into seniors that now ask for the wrap. Some younger students will come up to her and express their satisfaction with a dish they were wary of to begin with. She enjoys seeing their readiness to try something new progress over the years.

“Really, what we eat has a huge impact on lifelong health. As individuals, it has a really big impact on the health of families and communities, so if children get excited about healthy food early, it really just affects health for a lifetime,” Martini said.

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