Rep. Dusty Johnson fights for local beef in S.D. schools |

Rep. Dusty Johnson fights for local beef in S.D. schools

Dusty Johnson visits with students about the existing school lunch program. Photo courtesy Dusty Johnson

Spaghetti with meat sauce, hot hamburger with mashed potatoes, beef and noodles and cheeseburgers — these are the tasty menu items enjoyed by students at Wall School in Wall, S.D., all prepared by head cook Lynn Dunker using locally-raised beef.

For the spring 2019 semester, 1,240 pounds of ground beef, 317 pounds of beef patties, 45 pounds of roast beef and 35 pounds of cubed beef were used to create these meals for the Wall students. This beef was donated by Wall area ranchers Josh and Shasta Geigle, Marty and Rhonda Williams, Scot Eisbenbraun, Will Willuweit and Rusty and Angela Lytle.

This was the first year of this pilot program, which not only included regional beef, but also featured an educational component, led by Dani Herring, Wall’s FFA advisor, which included programs created by FFA students and presented to the elementary kids.

And because the first year was so successful, Wall School is prepared to purchase beef for the 2019/2020 school year, once again sourcing products from local ranchers who will deliver fat cattle to Wall Meat Processing, located in Wall and owned by Ken Charfaruos.

“Without question, Wall’s Beef to School pilot wouldn’t have been possible without strong support from both Lynn and Ken,” said Josh Geigle, who not only donated beef to the program but also helped to bring it to life through his involvement on the Wall Economic Ag Committee. “Both Lynn and Ken were willing to work with producers to meet the parameters and guidelines of the school nutrition program, and now that the particulars are worked out, this will be a sustainable program for years to come.”

Geigle said introducing a pilot like this didn’t come without hurdles.

“Food is procured in advance, so ranchers interested in creating something like this in their own communities will need at least six to work through the strict requirements of the nation’s school lunch program,” said Geigle.

Ultimately, programs of this nature, Geigle said, are a win-win because they support the local economy, engage area producers, encourage educators to teach about agriculture and how food is produced and provide kids with great-tasting meals.

Yet, for these programs to be successful they need community support, school staff willing to try something new and a cooperating local meat locker. And the final piece of the puzzle is removing the government’s regulatory red tape that limits local producers from providing nutritious commodities to the region’s schools.

On June 4, U.S. Representative Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) introduced the Farm and Ranch to School Act, which would amend the current National School Lunch Act (NSLA), Farm to School Program, to include funding to make sourcing meat for school lunch programs a priority.

Currently, the Farm to School Program, which is overseen by the USDA, includes language that allows fruit and vegetable growers across the country to provide produce to area schools; however, for meat producers, the options are limited.

“Under the current Farm to School Program, meat and livestock producers are underserved,” said Johnson. “In South Dakota, we grow our meat locally. The Farm and Ranch to School Act will give South Dakota producers a fair shake at serving their product in the lunchroom. South Dakota’s students deserve the best and freshest quality meat in their lunches, this legislation will make that a reality.”

Currently, all beef served in schools must meet all USDA food safety standards; however, the source or origin of the product is not among the requirements for procurement.

“This would mandate that 50% of the Farm to School funds go to schools seeking to source local meat,” said Johnson. “Historically, the program has primarily served schools serving local vegetables, but due to our cold climate in South Dakota that is not always a possibility. Our state has a strong ranching tradition, and this bill would allow schools and producers to have better access to these grants.”

Additionally, Johnson’s bill would encourage agricultural literacy in the school.

“The current program requires a nutritional education component to help students make healthy choices,” he said. “The Farm and Ranch to School Act would take that a step further by showing students not only the nutritional aspects, but also the story of where their food comes from and everything it takes to get to their dinner plate.”

Looking at the pilot program introduced in Wall, should this bill pass, Johnson sees similar opportunities for collaboration with schools, meat lockers and ranchers across the state.

Funding would be awarded as a grant to local school districts through the existing program.

“We are expecting to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act this year, and we are planning to offer this as an amendment,” said Johnson.

Currently, the Senate is in discussions on the mandatory reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which allocates $5 million in funding for grants of this type. Johnson serves on the House Committee on Education and Labor, which oversees this bill, and hopes the House of Representatives will soon have the opportunity to discuss these proposed changes, which would create a regulatory environment conducive for schools to procure meat from local producers.

According to USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, “On an annual basis, USDA awards competitive Farm to School grants to be used for training, supporting operations, planning, purchasing equipment, developing school gardens, developing partnerships and implementing farm to school programs. Through the FY 2018 Omnibus Bill, the Farm to School Grant Program was appropriated additional funding. In FY 2019 and FY 2020, Office of Community Food Systems (OCFS) will release approximately $7.5 million to help reach more communities seeking to incorporate local products into the school meal programs, integrate agricultural education into the classroom and cultivate and expand school gardens.”

Another way Johnson’s bill would assist in efforts to provide local beef to area schools is by eliminating the regulatory barriers for small, state meat lockers to process the beef.

“We have highly trained and thoroughly inspected state inspected lockers in South Dakota, which are capable of providing locally-raised proteins for school lunch programs,” said Johnson. “The great program would help build out the infrastructure to make these connections possible.”

State inspected lockers are allowed to provide beef to schools, much like they would sell to their local customers, so long as the meat doesn’t cross state lines.

“A program like this is a no-brainer if you have a qualified meat plant willing to work with the school,” said Geigle. “Hopefully, this bill will help facilitate with that, so more schools can offer locally-raised beef to students.”

“I have seen out on the ground the affect that the Farm to School program has on children in communities,” said Brandon Lipps, acting deputy under secretary for USDA’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, responding to Johnson’s introduction of the bill on June 4. “When kids are connected with their food, they do make healthy decisions. I think it’s one of the best programs that is moving children’s nutrition standards forward. I agree with the contention on including beef in that program — we want kids to have a local connection to all of their food.”

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