Northeast Iowa schools celebrated May, Beef Month in a special way this year. NE Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative partners navigated the complex farm-to-table chain of sourcing a local beef animal that ended up on the plates of local school children.
The idea started over a year ago with a video from Food Corps in Montana. They were using market cows as an affordable way to provide ground beef to schools.
A team of Food and Fitness partners asked, “Why can’t we do that here?” and our journey began.
For the last two years, we have been meeting monthly with school food service directors from Decorah, Waukon, Postville and Turkey Valley schools to work on a cycle menu that would incorporate more locally-grown foods.
When we asked food service about using local meat, they were willing to give it a try if we could find a product that would be affordable for the tight school meal budgets.
It turns out, cost was only one part of the equation. Getting meat into schools is a complex process. When you read our story, you will understand why.
The first thing we wanted to do was to take inventory of potential partners for the project; we knew we had four schools willing to participate. Finding a farmer with a cow shouldn’t be too hard, but what about the processing? After a few phone calls, we received approval from Nutrition Services at the Iowa Department of Education to use a state-inspected processing facility instead of a USDA inspected one. (The only difference is that state-inspected meat cannot cross state lines.)
With this approval, we set our sights on Quillin’s meat department in Waukon and booked a processing date for March 31. Pre-booking is important because they have to make arrangements to have the state inspector there when our cow is there—and he usually only comes on Mondays.
We worked out arrangements with the Iowa Food Hub (www.iowafoodhub.com) to coordinate the transactions and make sure everyone was paid. They were also responsible for delivery of the product to the schools.
Next, I started looking for farmers who may have the type of cow we were looking for – beef breed, less than six years old, high dressing. I created flyers and posters to hang at the sale barns and talked to some key cattlemen in the area. We wanted to create a “supplier pool” – a group of people we could call who might have a cow to sell the program.
Well, it all looks good on paper, but when the time came to have a cow ready for March 31, I was not having much luck. March is the middle of calving season and not a time when a beef producer is actively culling his herd.
So, I turned to Plan B and called Gary at Equity Livestock Commission in Waukon and told him about the project. I’ve worked with Gary for years through the county fair as an Extension agent, and as the wife of a beef producer. I’m sure he thought I was crazy, but he humored me and found a cow that fit our needs. He even volunteered to keep her at the barn for a few days until her “appointment” the following Monday.
After a quick call to a local cattle hauler in Waukon to escort her to Quillins, things were set and a week later we had 450 pounds of ground beef ready to go to schools.
The order ended up being split with half going a few blocks down the street to Allamakee schools and half being delivered by the Iowa Food Hub to the Decorah schools.
Decorah has a school chef on staff, Chad Elliott, who was particularly excited about being able to offer local beef for school lunch. Their school decided to turn the opportunity into an end-of-year celebration and planned to serve the whole district local hamburgers for a picnic lunch on May 28.
They borrowed a hamburger patty maker from Spillville Locker and contacted the Winneshiek County Cattlemen to grill the patties. Four grilling stations started cooking burgers in front of the school at 7 am that day filling downtown Decorah with the yummy smell of grilled beef.
By the end of the day, over 1500 lunches were served. Nine hundred of them featured a local hamburger that traveled less than 50 miles from farm to plate. Now, that is a reason to celebrate!
This is the just the beginning.
Iowa Food Hub is looking for beef producers willing to sell to market cows for Farm to School use in the fall. Because of its non-profit status, IFH is also able to accept cash donations to offset the costs of purchasing the animal and processing. Donations can be earmarked for specific schools.
Iowa Food Hub, a project sponsored by Allamakee New Beginnings, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to reducing the effects of poverty in NE Iowa. Iowa Food Hub unites the mission and vision of its partners by managing the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products to connect farmers to families.
IFH programming focuses on small and medium-sized farm viability, food access and equality, local economic development, job creation and retention, beginning and established farmers, and food system research and education.
For more information, visit www.iowafoodhub.com or call Teresa Wiemerslage, ISU Extension, at 563-794-0599 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.