School capitalizes on local beef
Douglas – Over the past decade, school nutrition has been a topic of discussion nationwide, but in Douglas, Converse County School District Nutrition Services Director Monty Gilbreath says the solution to making sure students have healthy protein is in partnerships with local producers.
“Schools are looking for ways to make meals more nutritious and better tasting,” Gilbreath explains. “We were looking for ways to improve what we offer to students.”
He continues that traditionally, schools source their protein, in particular beef, through USDA commodity programs or from food purveyor, but local beef is a much more attractive option.
Gilbreath explains, in Converse County, they traditionally obtain beef from USDA commodity programs or through Sysco.
“If we run out of the USDA commodity ground beef, I contractually buy it from Sysco at $2.25 per pound,” Gilbreath says. “Either way, I don’t know where the beef comes from, which is important for us.”
A new School Nutrition Pilot Project program was passed by the Wyoming Legislature this year. This program allows school districts to obtain cost-share money to match processing costs for local, donated beef. The animal that is donated must be raised and processed in Wyoming.
“If producers donate beef, the school district pays for the processing at a USDA state-inspected processing plants, the price currently is 75 cents a pound,” Gilbreath says. “We can save money, and students are eating a higher quality beef.”
Frank Eathorne kick-started the program in Douglas, Gilbreath explains. Eathorne donated a cow to the school district, and the district then paid for processing and utilized the beef in their school lunch program.
Gilbreath adds that the effort was the catalyst to a state-wide initiative that passed in the Wyoming Legislature this year.
“We got Sen. Brian Boner involved,” Gilbreath says. “Brook Brockman from the Wyoming Department of Education and I sat him down and asked if we could get a legislative match funding to help expand the program statewide.”
They worked with Sen. Boner to pass a bill, providing for a 50-50 match to school districts on the processing costs.
“The bill passed unanimously, and there is now $25,000 is set aside to pay for processing of donated protein,” Gilbreath says, noting that the funding can pay for pork, lamb, bison, beef or poultry processing. “It’s not specific to just beef. It allows school districts the option.”
In using donated beef in Converse County’s School Districts, Gilbreath says they have seen a huge difference in quality of their meals.
“Our cook, Judy, really noticed a huge difference in cooking up the ground beef donated by local ranchers, compared to the USDA commodity program beef,” he says.
Typically, in cooking 100 pounds of burger, five to 5.5 five-gallon buckets of grease are produced.
“The fat from the commodity beef is dark in color and cloudy,” Gilbreath says. “With beef from local ranches, we only got three buckets of grease, and it’s almost the texture of olive oil and much clearer.”
“There’s a big difference in the quality and taste of the beef, as well,” he adds. “We were really sold on this after that.”
Thus far, Converse County School District has seen beef donated from several area ranchers, including Jay Butler, Josh Moore and Larry Steinle. The effort has been fully supported by the Conserve County Stock Growers and Wyoming Stock Growers Association.
“We would love to see as many as 10 to 15 cows a year donated to our district,” Gilbreath says. “We use between 2,500 and 3,000 pounds of just ground beef each year in our district, and we’d like to have the highest quality possible.”
In addition to feeding a higher quality product to students, Gilbreath also says Converse County is increasing their marketing efforts to showcase producers who donate beef.
“Right now, we put the ranch name on our menu and on our website, so everyone knows that the beef is local,” he explains. “Next fall, we will have a Facebook page and will market donations on that page. We want to make sure to promote this program and the producers who are involved as much as possible.”
Producers who are interested in donating beef to schools need to contact their local school district nutrition services director.
“After they get things set up with the school district, they’ll have to set up processing with a state-inspected processing plant,” Gilbreath explains. “The health inspector has to be on site.”
“After producers set up a date to deliver the animal, we take it from there,” he says.
Gilbreath notes that cull cows in good health are prime options for donation to school districts, since much of the meat is ground.
“In the future, we see opportunity to use different cuts, such as stew meat, but right now, it’s all used for ground beef,” he says. “We’re looking at other options, too, like using steaks as an incentive or reward for student performance.”
Grant funding will be available this fall for all school districts across Wyoming.
“We hope all schools in the state take advantage of this program,” Gilbreath says. “It will only reduce costs and improve the quality of beef for students.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.