Wholesome lunches earn Luther school cook a White House visit

2011-10-14T19:45:00Z 2014-08-25T15:32:30Z Wholesome lunches earn Luther school cook a White House visitBy ROB ROGERS Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette

LUTHER -- First into the Luther Elementary lunchroom Friday were the school's five first-graders, who obediently lined up at the counter and waited for their meal.

"This is going to be nummy," exclaimed Sierra Biggio.

School cook Amy Russell began dishing out penne pasta in a fresh meat sauce, slices of homemade bread baked that morning, a Caesar salad, steamed broccoli, spaghetti squash, grapes and fresh peaches.

"I try to do as much fresh anything as I can," said Russell, who cooks everything from scratch.

The result is a growing school culture of being health conscious and, on Sunday, a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet first lady Michelle Obama.

"That is going to be so cool," Russell said with a smile.

Russell will be attending a reception on the South Lawn meant to honor schools from across the country that have been recognized for implementing healthy practices across campus.

Luther -- a K-8 school with 28 students -- is one of two schools in Montana to earn the distinction. The other is a Bozeman-area elementary school.

Attending with Russell will be Therese Picasso-Edwards, a past member of the school's wellness committee who helped implement many of the changes at Luther.

She got involved with a desire to change the school's morning snack: frosted animal crackers with juice boxes.

Morning snacks at the school now are closer to a full breakfast than a snack, with fresh-baked foods and fresh fruits and juice.

"Our committee's goals just grew from there," she said.

Efforts were made early to use more locally grown produce and locally raised meats. Russell shops farmers markets and has connections with local growers.

Switchback Ranch, which sits in the foothills of the Beartooths between Roscoe and Luther, sells high-grade cuts of meat to the school at a reduced price.

Support from the community, parents and school staff were vital, Picasso-Edwards said.

"I don't think it could have happened without it," she said.

Visiting the lunchroom now, she said what's immediately noticeable is the variety of food on the lunch trays.

"It's fun to see the colors on their plates," she said.

And the students like it, too.

"I like that the salad has cheese on it," first-grader Olivia Heimer said.

Their favorite is taco pizza.

Sitting in the lunchroom Friday afternoon, each of the first-graders had items on their tray they didn't want to eat -- mostly it was the steamed broccoli. But even with gentle prodding, all five of them were willing to take bites of it.

Russell said it's typical for students to simply throw away the foods they don't want to eat. That happens at schools everywhere. But she's noticed it decline at Luther as the school has made its efforts to cook fresh and use local produce.

But, just to help, she also mixes produce into the dishes she serves. For example, she put kale in the Caesar salad and squash in the meat sauce. Most of the time the students have no idea.

The school also found success starting a monthly ethnic meal. Each of the eight grades at the school pick a country and then once a month, Russell will serve up a meal featuring food from that country.

"Ours is Nepal," first-grader Aya Moore said.

Russell likes that it challenges her to cook something new and that it introduces the students to new cultures in an exciting and vibrant way.

"And that helps me," she said. "I find out what kind of weird things they like and I can keep serving it."

First-grade teacher Katie Speegle sees the difference healthy eating has made. It gives her students more energy, which helps with classroom activities and learning, she said.

"I notice when they eat well the afternoons go a lot smoother," she said.

Both Speegle and Picasso-Edwards praised Russell for making it work with the students.

"She does a great job giving us a variety of vegetables," Speegle said.

That variety keeps the kids interested, she said.

"The kids love her," Picasso-Edwards said. "We're lucky to have her."

Contact Rob Rogers at or 657-1231.

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