- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2015

KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) - The Kalispell Central Kitchen was filled with sweet smells as scrumptious chocolate-chip muffins lined a counter, cooling.

Think a chocolate-chip muffin is not nutritious? Think again. You might not taste it, but the little muffins contain a few secret ingredients such as carrots, beets, squash and banana.

Nearly a year and a half after the new kitchen opened, the benefits continue to be reaped from the facility near Kalispell Middle School.

With roughly 4,000 meals served a day, Kalispell Public School Central Kitchen’s spacious facilities have increased cooking capacity. The amount of food made from scratch has increased and waste decreased as a result.

Equipment such as a bun cutter, which portions out dough, is one small change that has improved efficiency so that staffers can experiment with recipes and nutritious ingredients, according to Food Services Director Jenny Montague.

“Small changes like this make a difference,” Montague said. “The bakers have also taken a lot of initiative in developing healthy standardized recipes that fit the USDA meal patterns and also taste delicious.”

Starting this year, central kitchen staffers make 50 percent of breakfast items from scratch as opposed to purchasing pre-packaged foods.

Baker April Bronson, who started working in the central kitchen in 1998, said cooking from scratch is more time-consuming and there is a learning curve, but it’s worth the effort.

“It’s been a really neat adventure,” Bronson said. “Now I can experiment more and try different things to see what’s working,” Bronson said.

Instead of throwing away produce that may not be used completely in school lunch, bakers see where else the extra ingredients can be incorporated.

“Does this work in a muffin? (For example) we had so much kale I tried grinding it up and put it in a muffin,” Bronson said.

Creative baking also comes in handy with the abundance of crops from the central kitchen garden, which has produced 400 pounds of produce.

This doesn’t mean that the baked goods have lost their sweet element. Bronson said they have cut back on white sugar and instead use brown sugar or honey.

“You don’t have to use as much honey and I think brown sugar adds more flavor,” Bronson said.

Spices and dried fruits also add a kick of flavor and texture in a nutritious way.

New recipes are taste-tested by the kitchen staff and, of course, in school cafeterias by students to earn the seal of approval from the district’s most important client. Taste tests are conducted by FoodCorps Service Member Whitney Pratt on a “loved it, liked it, tried it” scale.

The new location of the central kitchen has also provided ample room for the central kitchen garden to grow. Plans are in the works to triple the size of the garden to start growing winter squash and melons. Most of the produce goes to school salad bars and the free summer meals program. Increasing the amount of local foods and ingredients has been a Food Service Department initiative for many years.

“Thirty percent of food purchases are within Montana and 12 percent in Kalispell regionally,” Montague said.

To help manage school gardens around the district, the central kitchen worked with the Center for Restorative Youth Justice last spring, Pratt said.

“The youth learn skills, gardening, cooking - life skills, and the school gets good maintenance,” Pratt said. “They mostly focused on maintaining the central kitchen garden and gardens at Elrod, Hedges and Russell a little bit. All summer they did harvesting and a ton of work in the gardens moving a lot of soil and planning summer activities at our summer feeding program.

Local residents such as David Brown have also taken an interest in helping with the central kitchen garden, Pratt said.

“David has spent hundreds of hours in our gardens,” Pratt said.

She added that he will be a vital part of the garden expansion in addition to providing expertise in fertilizing the Kalispell Middle School fruit orchard, which was planted in 2012 after the school won an online competition. Montague said it is hoped the orchard has matured enough to start bearing fruit soon.

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Information from: Daily Inter Lake, https://www.dailyinterlake.com

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