Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 8pm

At MSU’s dining halls, local ingredients connect university with Montana agriculture

BOZEMAN — Among the many dishes Montana State University serves to its students, staff and visitors, it’s hard to find a recipe that doesn’t include at least one ingredient that came from a Montana farm or ranch.

Strolling among the cuisine counters at Miller Dining Commons recently, Kara Landolfi, MSU’s Farm to Campus Coordinator, noted wood-fired pizzas topped with bacon from Montana 4-H pigs, taco meat from MSU-raised steers and Gallatin Valley kale at the salad bar. A unique salad topping — Montana wheat berries popped in Montana safflower oil — was yet another example of MSU’s myriad local offerings.

“It’s integrated into everything,” Landolfi said.

In July, Landolfi and other MSU Culinary Services staff members received a major award — the Silver Award for Sustainability for Procurement Practices — at the National Association of College and University Food Services convention in Providence, Rhode Island.

“It’s extremely encouraging for all of our staff,” Landolfi said of the award. “It shows that what we’re doing is meaningful on a national level.”

MSU buys meat, vegetables, fruits and other ingredients directly from more than 100 Montana producers. Since 2005, MSU’s Farm to Campus initiative has sought to use MSU’s large purchasing power — a result of serving more than 12,000 meals daily — to contribute to the state’s agricultural economy, Landolfi said. Currently, MSU spends more than $1.75 million annually on Montana-sourced foods — about a quarter of the university’s total food purchases.

The sustainability award highlighted MSU’s growing use of local meats. All lamb served at Miller comes from Montana Highland Lamb near Whitehall and from MSU’s Red Bluff Research Ranch near Norris. MSU has purchased more than 60 pigs raised by 4-H kids around the state. And last year, MSU’s Culinary Services purchased 30 cattle from MSU’s Steer-A-Year program, in which MSU students raise livestock donated by Montana producers.

“It’s a win-win,” said Hannah DelCurto, an instructor in MSU’s Department of Animal and Range Sciences and the coordinator for the Steer-A-Year program. She noted that the proceeds from the sale help fund student travel to livestock judging competitions and other events.

The Steer-A-Year cattle are processed at Pioneer Meats in Big Timber and are used for anything from large rotisserie roasts to stroganoff to osso buco, an Italian stew that uses tenderized shanks. One of the finest cuts, New York strip steak, is grilled at the First Meal event, when up to 4,000 new students gather for an outdoor picnic at MSU’s Romney Oval.

“It gets the cooks excited, and makes them take special interest in preparing the food in the best way possible,” said Jill Flores, MSU’s interim executive chef.

“We notice that students appreciate it,” added Flores, who participated in 4-H as a kid and spearheaded the effort to buy 4-H pigs three years ago. “We hear them comment that it’s like something they’d get at home.”

Sourcing Montana products is more work than getting everything in a weekly delivery from a distributor, Landolfi said. But there are benefits beyond supporting Montana agriculture, including fresher ingredients. That’s one of the reasons why MSU Culinary Services is expanding its use of local ingredients at Rendezvous Dining Pavilion, which opened Aug. 13.

And there’s another benefit to using local ingredients — one that can’t be tasted or tallied as a dollar figure, she said.

“There’s a connection that you have,” Landolfi said, “when the steak you’re eating was raised by the student sitting next to you.”