Do you envision a Montana where local beef in schools is the automatic choice? The Beef to School Coalition thinks local beef should be at option for every school, especially in a state where there are more cows than people. With coalition members spanning the agricultural community, academics, government, public, and private sectors, we agree that Montana beef for Montana kids makes sense. In this blog post, we’ll explore an interview with a Montana school that got an offer for local beef that it couldn’t refuse.

“The stuff that were making with the local beef, the kids are just ranting and raving about it.”

Cindy Bainter is in her 18th year working for Big Timber’s schools, and her 9th year as the head cook and food service manager. A couple of weeks prior to our interview, she served sloppy joes to 267 students, an outstanding meal participation rate that Bainter attributes to the beef they used. She said, “The stuff that were making with the local beef, the kids are just ranting and raving about it.”

As a ranch wife, Cindy eats a lot of Montana raised beef. But when it came to making local beef available to the students in the cafeteria, some barriers existed. A few years prior, local ranchers had approached her with the idea of selling beef to the schools, but the cost of the beef and the processing expenses, were too much for a strained school lunch program budget. Big Timber, Montana has two schools, including a K-8 school with about 300 students and a high school with about 165 students. Cindy’s responsibility is to feed all of the students in the same cafeteria, which is located in the high school. The food service uses the National School Lunch Program, which provides a limited budget.

As of today, Cindy has brought close to 1300 pounds of local beef into the cafeteria with commitments for more in the future. So, what changed?

The buzz around local beef in Big Timber began less than 1.5 years ago, when Cindy was approached by representatives of the Crazy Peak Cattle Women (CPCW) with an outstanding offer. CPCW would accept donations of beef from ranchers and donate the beef to Big Timber schools. The school’s only expense would be to pay for processing. CPCW is a non-profit, which means that they can give ranchers a tax write off for their donation, further incentivizing local producers to get involved.

Cindy commented about CPCW, “They are hardworking ranch ladies, and their kids are coming up through the school and they wanted them to be able to have the local beef.” Cindy’s major caveat to purchasing Montana beef was cost, and with their present arrangement, she says they get local beef at the “same cost as it would be if I had to get it from the commodities [USDA Foods].”

The Beef to School Case Study Report explains that the donation model has been successful in multiple schools across the state. The donation model helps schools to provide local beef and frees up dollars to spend on more expensive items through USDA Foods. “Now instead of using the USDA commodities money that they allocate us for beef, I can use it for fruits and veggies.” Cindy said. Additionally, her budget last year was in the black, a state which she claimed “doesn’t happen very often.”

Crazy Peak Cattle Women met with the county health and wellness coordinator initially to develop a plan for a beef to school program. Backed by research and technical assistance from the Beef to School Project, they planned a donation model that fit the needs of the school, ranchers, and processor. The beef they source is as local as possible, and often from families with kids in the school system. Cindy defines local to be Sweetgrass County, plus the 5 neighboring counties. Most of the donated beef are culled animals, which are out of production and often a bit older. More recently, the school was donated a half of grass fattened beef.

All of the beef is processed at Pioneer Meats, just 2.5 miles down the road from the school. The beef is cut to the specifications of Cindy and brought into the school frozen. Cindy remarked that she really enjoys being able to work directly with the processor to specify cuts, packaging, and delivery. She said, “On the plus side, it’s really nice to be able to say, being a rancher, I know what’s going to be cut off of an animal, I know where it’s coming from…” The school uses ground beef, stew meat, hamburger patties, and deli sliced roast that Cindy turned into jerky. She mentioned that she is happier with the custom cuts that she is able to order through Pioneer, as compared to what was available through USDA Foods. The biggest challenge for the school has been coordinating delivery times, which has been a juggling act at times.

The school experimented with recipes and cuts, giving students a chance to provide feedback. They started taste tests last year with several meatball recipes made of the local beef. The taste test was placed at the end of the lunch line for high school students to sample. Then following lunch, students voted for their favorite recipe. In another taste test, students voted that they did not prefer roast beef from culled cows. Instead, Cindy used the culled cow beef to make jerky for a snack cart that students have access to during study breaks.

When asked about promotion efforts and engagement of the community, Cindy noted that the recent local news story increased involvement and knowledge of the Big Timber’s beef to school program. For example, Cindy said “The kids knew about it more than the adults did!” Now, the school promotes local beef on the menus and put it on the morning announcements. After hearing the morning announcement that local beef is on the lunch line, students rush to the cafeteria for lunch.

“If people in the community are willing to work with you, I think you should open the doors and say OK let’s work this out.”

The cafeteria staff are also big fans of local beef, with Cindy remarking “[local beef] smells better when they cook it.” She also made comments about the difference in runoff when they cook the local beef. There were times when the kitchen staff would cook up 80 pounds of USDA Foods burger and end up with close to 5 gallons of runoff, a mixture of mostly water and some fat. With the local beef product, it’s surprising if the cooks end up with a gallon of runoff, meaning that the school is getting more cooked beef for their dollar with the local product.

Cindy hopes to host parents and grandparents in the lunchroom to celebrate the local beef that their school enjoys and hopes to find a way to thank all the people that have made this possible. “I really want to do an appreciation type thing to the ranchers and Crazy Peak Cattle Women,” she said. Knowing that the school uses about 3 tons of beef in a year, she was not sure that donations would be able to fill their needs. But at this point, they have more than enough ranchers willing to contribute, and the future looks great! “If people in the community are willing to work with you, I think you should open the doors and say OK let’s work this out.”

All photos courtesy of Crazy Peak Cattle Women