Local beef is coming soon to Burke School lunch program

Myron and Carol Johnson will join Rich and Sara Grim and Betsy Senter and Bonnie Noziska as the first donors of a beef to be processed for the Burke School Lunch Program. The Rosebud Rancherettes Cattlewomen spearheaded this unique program and the Burke School District is one of the first schools in the state to bring home-grown beef directly to the school lunch program through the use of a specially certified processor. Courtesy photo

Everybody loves a good burger, hot and juicy, seasoned just right, and most of all that real beef flavor. People in west river ranch country know best that the quality of the critter is the essential ingredient. In food service lingo it’s called starting with good product. Thanks to the Rosebud Rancherettes, that good product is coming to the school lunch table in Burke.

The Rancherettes have been working to bring high quality, locally raised and donated beef into the school lunch program, but it has not been easy. The concept is simple, replace a product already being used in the school lunch program (government commodity beef) with another, higher quality product (locally raised beef).

As many people already know, the local school lunch program is heavily regulated with federal guidelines that dictate overall calorie count per meal, fat content, and sodium levels to name a few. The guidelines apply per meal, as well as per week, so there is a lot to track. As with any government regulations, the requirements are a bit of a burden, but the even larger burden comes in the red tape associated with compliance. Detailed, complex production records track meals and recipes every day with weekly totals, and they must be submitted to the state along with food labels to ensure compliance. Nutrition labels must meet certain government standards, and even recipes must be approved. Paradoxically one result to all of this regulation is more processed foods in the school lunch program, like breaded beef patties, chicken nuggets, etc. The corporations who supply food product to schools and to government commodity programs have learned to play the game by getting their products labeled correctly and tailoring their products to fit approved recipes. This all sounds complicated, but opting out of the federal lunch program to circumvent the guidelines is not a viable option, as the Burke School District has over 40 percent of its students on either free or reduced priced meals. Without the federal subsidies that come with all of the regulations, the school district would could not afford to serve school lunches at all.

One of the challenges with utilizing locally raised beef is that the beef can only be processed at a state approved facility, and that facility has to meet certain labeling requirements. Also, the selection of the processor that the school chooses to use must go through a procurement process, in which at least three different vendors have to have a chance to bid on the processing. The Burke School made the appointment in Hudson, SD for three head of beef.

The good news in all of this is that the Rancherettes have stuck with it, and better beef is coming to our kids’ lunch tables. The program is going to roll out in stages. The first stage is replacing commodity ground beef that could come from anywhere, with our locally raised beef. In recipes that already call for ground beef – think tacos, hamburgers, and tater tot casserole – the new product will be substituted. The next stage is to increase the number of times that ground beef appears in the menu. The final stage is to develop new recipes and menu items to replace some of the processed foods we see now. The Rosebud Rancherettes are delivering the live critters to the locker, and the locally raised beef will arrive in the school freezer early second semester.

Some people who have been instrumental in making this happen are the local beef producers who donated the first three head of beef. Anyone who cares about the quality of food our kids eat should give a hearty thanks to Myron and Carol Johnson, Rich and Sara Grim, and Betsy Senter and Bonnie Noziska for their generous donations. With current consumption levels, three head should last almost a school year, so there will be a need next fall for more donations.