The Blaine County Journal News-Opinion - We've Got The County Covered

Beef Is on the Menu in Area Schools


October 21, 2020

As part of the Montana Beef to School Project, two schools in Blaine County will be the recipients of local beef, which their cooks will use in meal preparation and serve in their school cafeterias. This practice provides economic support for local ranchers, meat processors, and agricultural communities while also potentially increasing students’ awareness of Montana’s ranching heritage and about the origin of their food.

Since its inception in 2015, the Montana Beef to School (B2S) Project personnel have made it their goal to assist schools and producers in forming connections with one another and overcoming barriers to serving local beef. B2S groomed partnerships between beef producers and processors, schools, researchers at Montana State University (MSU), National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), Montana Department of Agriculture (MDA), and various community partners whose goal it is to increase the consumption of Montana beef in every Montana school.

Before the Project’s beginning, however, a coalition formed in July 2013. These coalition members collaborated on research, education, and outreach related to beef to school with the hopes of supporting healthy Montana children, vibrant rural communities, and strong local economies. Today, the coalition is comprised of over thirty different stakeholders. These include ranchers, meat processors, foodservice directors, non-profit organizations, the MDA, and the Office of Public Instruction (OPI).

According to a B2S spokesperson, “We’ve researched successful local beef procurement models, conducted training to assist producers and their processing partners interested in selling to schools, created educational guides, promotional materials, student curriculum, procurement templates, and more. By engaging a diverse group of producers and other stakeholders in meaningful roles throughout the past five years, this project has fostered partnerships and garnered long-term interest and investment in local and regional beef markets.”

One of those stakeholders, the North Central Montana Stockgrowers Association (NCMSGA) has been instrumental in getting that beef to the schools. In fact, on Monday, October 12, an Assistant Director for the NCMSGA and a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at Chinook Veterinary Clinic, Lane Schmitt delivered 150 pounds of hamburger patties to Big Sandy Schools. On Monday, October 19, he delivered another 150 pounds of beef to Turner Schools. “Chinook didn’t have the freezer space, but they are next on our list,” Schmitt said. “The main driver behind our work is to see beef consumption increase,” he added. “We want local beef in our schools because it’s locally sourced and healthy.”

With relatively few calories, beef contains an abundance of nutrients like B-vitamins, zinc, iron, potassium, and protein. Studies show that eating lean beef as part of a balanced diet supports healthy blood pressure and blood lipids. Research also reveals that partially replacing carbohydrates in the diet with protein can be a useful strategy for the prevention of hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

According to Schmitt, when the NCMSGA was setting up their B2S program, they looked at donation models in Winnett and Choteau and patterned their model similarly. “Ranchers donate the animals, and we set-up and pay for the processing and then deliver the beef to the school,” he reported.

Although the NCMSGA has an account established through donations to pay for processing costs, all of the other work is performed by volunteers like Schmitt.

The beef that went to Big Sandy and Turner was donated by Merle Young, President of the NCMSGA, who wanted to “get the ball rolling” and encourage other producers to match his generous gesture.

The B2S Project is part of the Farm to Cafeteria Network which encompasses the Harvest of the Month Program (HOM). Open to K-12 schools, afterschool programs, summer food service programs, early care and education facilities, and healthcare institutions in Montana, the HOM showcases Montana grown foods in Montana communities.

Each month, participating sites focus on promoting one locally grown item by serving it in at least one meal, snack, or à la carte offering and by displaying or distributing HOM materials. October’s featured item is the apple.

Additionally, schools and early care and education settings participate by offering taste tests to students and doing educational lessons and activities. HOM provides an easy framework to follow with ready-to-use materials for launching a farm to school or farm to cafeteria program. Participating sites receive a free packet of materials, including posters, handouts, guides, and additional resources. The two primary goals for this program are to expose children and adults to new, healthy foods and to support Montana’s farmers and ranchers.

Although Chinook School District is just getting started in the B2S Program, according to Heidi Brown, Head Cook for the Chinook Schools’ Lunch Program, they have participated in the HOM for a couple of years.

“With all the interruptions from COVID, we didn’t complete last year, and I haven’t done too much yet this year. We only see a few of the classes in the cafeteria and don’t have time to taste test with all the bagging of lunches that we are required to do under COVID guidelines,” Brown said.

The goal of conducting taste tests is to help students become adventurous eaters. The hope, Brown explained, was to conduct at least one taste test each month and submit voting results using the Tried It, Liked It, Loved It voting system. Because students are often reluctant to try new foods, taste tests introduce new menu items in a way that raises awareness about healthy food choices, involves the school community, and builds a culture of trying new foods. Taste tests of the HOM products give children an opportunity to try locally produced and in-season foods each month. The HOM schedule features winter squash in November, lentils in December, carrots in January, beets in February, grains in March, chick peas in April, beef in May, leafy greens in June, and dairy in July. The calendar changes slightly each year to include new foods.

“We usually have a spot in the cafeteria where we display the item for the month, along with information about that item,” Brown said. “We are allowed to switch items around if we need to, but they recommend following the calendar.”

In years past, the school has celebrated the Great Apple Crunch or Crunch Day in October when children across the United States take a bite out of an apple on the same day, at the same time. This year’s Great Apple Crunch was celebrated by children in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio at NOON on Thursday, October 8.

Still, all month, the Farm to Cafeteria Network invites everyone to take part in celebrating October as Farm to School Month, an annual 31-day campaign to recognize, appreciate, and celebrate the connections happening across the country between children, families, and their community food systems. National Farm to School Month was designated by Congress in 2010, making this year’s campaign the tenth anniversary of National Farm to School Month celebrations.


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