From land to lunch line | TSLN.com

From land to lunch line

The students at Jordan Public School were treated to a prime rib meal during the holidays, as well as during the end of the year junior/senior banquet. Photos courtesy of Jordan Public School

Beef it's what's for lunch at Jordan Public School in Garfield County, Mont. Seven beef steers raised by local Montana ranchers were donated to the 130-student K-12 school, and students and faculty have enjoyed a wide array of tasty dishes ranging from hamburger pizza, meatloaf, beef and gravy over mashed potatoes, and cheese burgers.

Jordan Public School Superintendent Nate Olson said faculty members teamed up to explore options to bring better beef into the school.

"What kind of pushed us in this direction was the beef that was being served was pretty poor, and a lot of parents weren't thrilled with what the kids were getting to eat," said Olson. "We brainstormed different options and started asking community members to see if there was any interest in donating some beef. The response was huge once people heard about it. We received seven steers from six area ranchers, and we already have eight steers lined up for next year. The community support has been excellent."

Through the support of these six ranchers including Lee and Toni Murnion, Bryan and Chelsea Phipps, Rick and Earline Lawrence, Colin and Carrie Murnion, Philip and Karen Gibbs, and Brent and Hillari McRae, students have enjoyed locally-raised beef this school year. The school has also received support from Garfield County Bank and Ryan's Processing Plant.

“We definitely noticed the change in the taste of the beef this year at school lunch. It was cool to eat beef donated by ranchers I know, and it definitely does taste better.”Tyrone Hageman, junior at Jordan Public School

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Olson explained the steps the school had to take in order to make this happen.

"The ranchers who donated beef hauled the live steers to Quality Meats of Montana, LLC, in Miles City, which is about 90 miles from Jordan," he said. "Because of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the beef is required to be USDA inspected and certified, and from there, the school paid for transportation back to Ryan's Processing Plant in Jordan. Ryan's donated the processing of one carcass, and we paid for the remaining six head. We were able to work with Ryan's on the specifications of the beef we wanted such as the quarter-pound burger patties, for example."

As the school year wraps up, students were treated to a prime rib meal at the junior/senior banquet. The seniors will enjoy a steak fry on their last day of school.

"We definitely noticed the change in the taste of the beef this year at school lunch," said Tyrone Hageman, a junior at Jordan Public School. "It was cool to eat beef donated by ranchers I know, and it definitely does taste better."

Hageman said with his many activities such as student council, football, basketball, Business Professionals of America, and FCCLA, a nutritious lunch is important to him.

"Having a high-quality lunch that includes tasty beef has definitely helped fuel me for my sporting activities after school," he said. "With this local beef, we are allowed to go back as many times as we need to for seconds without being charged extra for it. It's great for our football team, since we tend to eat a lot of food!"

His favorite meal?

"Definitely roast beef and mashed potatoes with gravy," Hageman said. "Our student council has also gotten involved in serving some of the lunches, and our elementary kids take turns picking out their favorite meals to put on the menu. It's neat to see how the school has gotten the students involved in the process."

Olson admitted that it's not always easy serving locally-processed beef in the school.

"There's certainly a lot more prep involved," he said. "Before, the USDA burger was precooked, but it had a strange texture and came in unnatural looking little cubes. Since the beef isn't pre-cooked, there are extra steps our cooks must take in preparation, cooking and cleanup, but the taste is much better, there is less waste, the kids really enjoy it, and the parents are much more pleased with the food we are serving. A lot of it has to do with local pride and that the beef is coming from local ranchers. There's no question the beef is great, and this has been a huge success."

In addition to the eight steers lined up for next year, Jordan Public School has also lined up donations for local pork, so the kids will have access to pork chops, hot dogs and breakfast sausage.

While some schools have opted out of the federal school lunch program, the Farm to School program is supported by the USDA. The term "farm to school" centers around connecting local farmers with students to teach them about where their food comes from, while also expanding market opportunities for food producers.

In 2015, the Farm to School served over 18,000 public, private and charter school districts in the U.S. According to the 2015 USDA Census, 42 percent of school districts say they participate in farm to school activities such as serving locally produced foods in the cafeteria, promoting locally produced foods at school, holding taste-testing demos in the classroom of locally produced foods, going on field trips to farms and orchards, and utilizing new strategies to encourage the consumption of local foods.

Aubree Roth, Montana State Lead Farm to School coordinator says the "beef to school" trend has been growing rapidly in the state.

"Serving locally raised beef in Montana has been a strong growing trend, which makes sense given our agricultural landscape and the fact that we have more cows than people in our state," said Roth. "We are currently involved in a three-year grant to explore the best options for getting beef into schools, and it's been interesting to identify the challenges and opportunities that schools experience in sourcing locally-raised beef for their lunch programs."

Through the grant, Roth has been studying several Montana schools that serve Montana-raised beef.

"Some are getting the beef through donations, while others are funding it themselves. Some have special arrangements with local producers and processors because of the quantities they are buying," she said. "For a school to consider locally-sourcing beef, they must first look at their own capabilities. Does the school have the facilities, staff and equipment to handle raw beef? What is the price, and how can the school fit it into the budget? Where is the closest state or federally inspected plant? It's important to test things out and work out the kinks. It's my job to talk with schools to help them navigate through some of these challenges they might face in the process."

Roth said it's important to note that the schools aren't giving up federal funding to buy local beef, in fact, it's encouraged. What's more, because of the Buy American Provision, the federally-funded program is required to buy American grown and raised products whenever possible.

Roth is currently gearing up for the Montana Farm to School Summit, which encourages school administrators, parents, students, community members, farmers and ranchers to come together to learn more about how to get locally-sourced foods into school lunch programs. According to an opinion piece by Heather Fryer, the Summit, scheduled for Sept. 22-23, will feature field trips to successful schools, processors and school gardens in the Bozeman area and breakout sessions to help schools gather resources and ask questions.

"The Summit is a great place for schools to start learning more about the process and learning from those who have found success in the Food to School movement," said Roth. "I've been so encouraged visiting the schools that have been serving Montana beef. The kids seem to love it, and they get excited to talk about where the beef comes from. The cooking staff at the schools have shown a lot of creativity, as well, in the recipes they use and the ways they serve the beef. There's so much to learn in this area, and I really encourage folks who are interested to attend the Summit."

For more information on the 2016 Montana Farm to School Summit, check out https://tofu.msu.montana.edu/cs/f2s_2016.