Where’s your beef coming from?

Courtland producer spearheads movement to put locally-grown beef on school lunch trays

Deb Hadachek – Telescope Editor

If they can do it in Nebraska, why can’t we do it here? That was the question that popped into the mind of Mark Reed, Courtland, when he heard a news story about local cattle producers who provide beef for the school lunch program in their local districts.

He began to pose that question to school officials, school board members, and other beef growers.

That question would eventually launch Panther Producers, an effort that by word of mouth has already provided four head of cattle and a flood of donations to the school lunch program at Pike Valley/ USD 426.

“This has subsidized our food service department by about $20,000,” says Sue King, Pike Valley superintendent. “At the same time we still meet the requirements for beef patties for the state food service menus.

“However the quality of our beef is so much better and the students definitely can tell the difference and have commented as such.”

The Pike Valley Foundation and the Pike Valley FFA chapter have also joined Reed to promote the project. The Foundation has offered to cover the processing costs for donated animals. While the first donations have been beef, says Pike Valley FFA advisor Katie Carlgren, Panther Producers hope to inspire donations of pork and other locally-grown products.

“This is exciting for a lot of reasons,” Carlgren says. “There’s a real cost savings for the district. But we hope to implement a whole education approach to teach kids about nutrition, and where their food comes from, with a locally-grown wholesome product.”

Meat is processed at Duis Meats in Concordia, a USDAinspected facility. Carlgren also credits the Pike Valley food service employees.

“There is no way this could happen if it wasn’t for Kandy Wallin, the food service director,” she says. “It takes more steps to prepare than just pre-packaged meat.”

The program is a natural fit for the district and the Pike Valley FFA chapter. Many members are involved in live stock production, Carlgren says. Pike Valley teams compete in district and state livestock judging and qualifi ed for nationals. Several years ago, several curriculums combined to build a greenhouse at Pike Valley High School in Scandia, which has provided some fresh greens, herbs and tomatoes to the high school lunch menu.

The Pike Valley FFA helped raise awareness of Panther Producers at a recent basketball game, where they served donated hamburgers.

“There was a lot of excitement,” Carlgren says. “There is something about knowing where the food your kids and grandkids are eating comes from.”

The experience also helps FFA members hone their communication, organization and marketing skills. FFA members on the Panther Producers committee are Max Rickard, chair, Brody Carlgren, Shea Mikesell, Ben Jensen, Josiah Field, and Brayden Carlgren. They are advised by Pike Valley Foundation president Tanner Johnson and local producer Mark Reed.

USDA encourages

Pike Valley budgeted $115,000 for food and milk for the 2017-18 school year. Extension experts say one beef carcass nets about 490 pounds of meat. The donations to Pike Valley have been cut into roasts or made into hamburger, Carlgren says.

The US Department of Agriculture has encouraged school districts to use local food and farm-to-school activities to spark children’s interest in different foods. The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 established the USDA Farm to School Program to encourage school districts to use locally produced food for meals served through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. The USDA says about one-third of the school districts in the nation have implemented some sort of local food programs for their food service departments. Schools define “local foods” as those produced within 50 miles or their district, or within their state.

Most of the local foods introduced into the school lunch menu are fruits and vegetables. The USDA says only 19 percent of the locally produced food used in school lunch programs was meat and poultry. More than half of those districts obtained food directly from farmers and other producers.

Not just cattlemen

Carlgren says Pike Valley FFA members are already brainstorming ways to involve people outside the cattle industry in the program.

People who don’t raise beef can donate money, or they can also purchase a beef from a local student or cattle producer. Because few hogs are raised in Republic County, Carlgren said the possibility exists for an FFA member to raise hogs to provide pork for the district.

The FFA also hopes to facilitate donations of fruits, vegetables and other food, she says.

“We’re really excited about the potential,” Carlgren says. “We’ve had a tremendous amount of monetary donations, and verbal commitments for more animal donations.

“It’s raised a lot of awareness in our communities.”