NCAT and the Farm to Cafeteria Network are excited to be partnering with Montana State University (MSU) on the Beef to School research project, which is finishing its first year. Funded by Western SARE, the project aims to increase the availability and consumption of local beef in Montana’s schools and communities and help improve Montana beef producers’ and meat processors’ viability and sustainability. The project is moving right along, and we are excited to share the latest news with our Dirt readers.
In late March, the Beef to School Coalition gathered at the Livingston Food Resource Center to discuss resources and explore the barriers that can encourage or prevent Montana schools from serving Montana beef. Read on for a few highlights from the gathering and stay tuned for more beef to school activities in the coming months!
Lower Valley and Somers/Lakeside Case Study Highlight
A highlight of the gathering was hearing from Jeremy Plummer of Lower Valley Processing in Kalispell and Robin Vogler of Somers/Lakeside school district. Jeremy kicked off the day by relating how he started selling to the Kalispell school district about four years ago. He was approached by the food service director at the time, Jenny Montague, who wanted to serve local beef in the school meals and who asked him if Lower Valley could provide that beef. Her visit led to negotiations on a price point match that would work for both parties, and the processing plant had to purchase a refrigerated truck for deliveries to the school. Lower Valley continues to deliver to the Kalispell schools two times a week with fresh, bulk burger. One of the ways he keeps the cost down for the school is by sourcing culled animals and older bulls to create a blend of beef that is cheaper than the market beef. Jeremy also talked about the “feel good” factor of working with schools, as it keeps money local and saves transportation time and energy. Additionally, Lower Valley has hosted field trips for elementary students to tour the processing plant to learn about where their beef comes from.
Robin Vogler, food service director at the Somers/Lakeside school, provided a buyer’s perspective by sharing her story of serving local beef over the years. She started sourcing Montana beef in 2006 after there was a beef recall and has worked with a local rancher to buy culled beef until that rancher moved. Price point is a challenge for her, so she buys Montana beef for special meals. Robin talked about how she wants ranchers and processors to get a fair price and would like to see policy changes so that she could use commodity dollars to purchase local products.
“Beef And” Series
Another highlight of the gathering was hearing from Dayle Hayes of “School Meals that Rock” about strategies for pairing local beef with mushrooms, with the goal of allowing schools to purchase local beef (at a potentially higher cost) by stretching the amount of beef required for entrees. Dayle talked about the natural complementary tastes of beef and mushrooms. She also pointed out that using mushrooms allows schools to meet vegetable meal pattern requirements, and including mushrooms or lentils in the entrée allows for larger portion sizes. Many participants in the meetings had questions for Dayle and were interested in hearing more about this concept of blending to stretch beef.
This presentation was the first in what the team hopes will be an ongoing series highlighting innovative strategies to incorporate beef onto the lunch tray. For example, lentils have also been blended with beef in school meals with the same idea of extending the beef through blending.
More Beef on the Beef
Everyone at the meeting had the chance to sample lots of beef dishes! A “Local Beef and Mushroom Chili,” recipe created by Malissa Marsden, was served with whole-grain cinnamon rolls. Conference attendees voted whether they “tried it,” “liked it,” or “loved it,” just as students in schools do when they participate in a taste test. The voting took place on Ipads with an app developed in collaboration with the Mushroom Council and NutriSlice. Conference attendees “loved it!” Lunch was served at Park High School, where once again attendees got to eat as the students do, enjoying a Taco Crunch made out of Lazy SR beef.
Montana Beef in Every Montana School
The day concluded with an overview of all the resources currently available to schools and producers for reaching out to one another (available by request!), as well as brainstorming on what still needs to be created. Suggestions included guidelines on school food, such as portion sizes, delivery method, and packaging information for producers and price points that schools can work with. More exciting and innovative beef to school recipes to come in the near future!