Monica Harshman stands in front of the stove in the Forge Kitchen

What’s Cookin’ in the Forge Kitchen?

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Idaho public charter school serves 4,000 meals a month

by Lindsay Trombly

Kitchen Manager and mother of three, Monica Harshman, makes the kitchen the “heart of the home” at Forge International School. She ensures students can access nutritious, consistent meals, and reaches families on a deeper level by battling food insecurity.

Harshman said Feeding America projects that 1 in 8 students in America are living in hunger. This demographic reality affects the roughly 22% of students at Forge who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

“You can see a kid, you can see in their eyes — struggles. And you can see that food insecurity,” Harshman said getting teary-eyed.

As Harshman has experienced firsthand, some families rely on school meals to help their children get through the day. With a portion of their $1.25 million grant from Bluum’s Communities of Excellence federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), Forge was able to equip their kitchen to provide important fuel for learning to students who need it most.

Stoves in the Forge Kitchen

Kitchen equipment at Forge International School in Middleton, ID.

Between the efficient commercial kitchen setup, and hard work, combined with meticulous dedication to nutrition, Harshman and her team were able to provide 4,000 meals to students in just the month of May alone.

Schools who earn funds through this $22 million competitive federal grant program demonstrate their commitment to expanding opportunities for students to attend excellent public charter schools, especially for educationally disadvantaged and rural students. Having a meal program is just one way charter schools, like Forge, can expand equity and access for Middleton-area students.

Before Harshman served as Kitchen Manager, she delivered meals to classrooms during COVID-19 restrictions and noticed that some students were struggling. She said it “tugged her mom heartstrings.”

“I realized kids that had lunchboxes, their lunchboxes weren’t full and I noticed the food insecurity,” Harshman said. “At Forge we will feed anyone, but even knowing some of these kids — they couldn’t [eat] — because it would be charged to their account.”

To help offset the food insecurity families are experiencing due to the pandemic, Forge has been participating in the Seamless Summer Operations (SSO) food program since October 2020. This program has allowed the school to provide free breakfast and lunch to students who need it; bringing the certainty of healthy nutrition during a very uncertain time.

“It (the SSO food program) boosts their confidence when they know they can get food. Every kid should be able to get a meal. It’s huge for families — because families on that threshold they need it,” Harshman said.

And the kids love it.

Harshman has noticed a change in kids’ confidence when it’s time to eat. She said they have a sense of confidence walking through the line and look forward to many lunch favorites throughout the week. This includes corndogs, orange chicken, mixed vegetables and even the occasional whole grain slice of pizza.

With the program they have been able to serve around 265 students a day. Harshman tailors the menu using macronutrient calculations to make sure students get proper, balanced nutrition needed to keep their brains fueled for a day of learning.

The sense of community and being able to feed students for free or reduced cost has made a huge difference for students, and not only in Harshman’s eyes.

Jessica Humphries, who now runs the front desk at Forge, and who previously served as Forge Kitchen Manager, has noticed the impact the program has had on students who might not otherwise be able to obtain a meal.

“It’s highly important for the families, relying on the school and it’s opportunities. The free and reduced possibilities…if families qualify for that and a school doesn’t offer that, then that would be hard financially for a family to choose a school where they are going to have that financial hardship,” Humphries said. “We have a high food insecurity rate in our area and it’s nice to be able to utilize these programs for them.”

The school’s kitchen has not only been giving students the proper learning fuel, but has also become a place where students can find comfort, learn, and take ownership. Students enjoy being a part of the mealtime process, volunteering to wipe down tables and do basic food prep.

Harshman said one student has even had the drive to create a cooking club for next year, and she’s excited for the kitchen to continue to be a learning space for students.

“You need to have a kitchen in the house to really survive and thrive,” Harshman said. “We are trying to pull kids into the kitchen and teach them life skills.”

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Forge International School in Middleton opened its doors in fall 2018, with the goal of bringing a free, public, International Baccalaureate education option to a rural Idaho community.  Their student body is more diverse than the community around them, and that diversity is a product of deliberate efforts to serve all students. Bluum is a proud funder and supporter of the school.

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