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Beefing up their school lunch

Laura Handke for Progressive Cattleman Published on 25 June 2018
Officials of Mount Vernon public schools

Beef. It’s what’s for lunch in Mount Vernon, Missouri, public schools.

Over the past school year, the district has seen the amount of beef on the menu double thanks to an innovative new program that matches local cow-calf producers with school districts across the state.

“We were fortunate to be approached by the Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA) and the Missouri Beef Industry Council (MBIC) in the summer of 2017,” says Mount Vernon Public School District Superintendent Scott Cook. “We are located in Lawrence County, which happens to be the largest cattle-producing county in the state of Missouri.”

Home to more than 75,000 beef cows, Lawrence County was the clear choice for piloting a beef and student-centric program.

The program, MO Beef for MO Kids, is a collaborative effort among MDA’s Farm to Table program, MBIC and Opaa! Food Service. In its first academic year, the program has successfully doubled the amount of beef served in the Mount Vernon School District.

Mark Russell, executive director of MBIC, says the program is a win-win for everyone involved.

“The Beef Council’s role is to increase consumption,” says Russell. “MDA’s Farm to Table program works to integrate Missouri food products into the menu options, and the school’s nutrition management company’s role is to provide high-quality, nutritious meals to students. Working together, we have provided a higher-quality meat for no additional increase in cost to parents or the district.”

Getting started

When MBIC and MDA began looking into ways to get more beef on school lunch menus, the team was shocked to learn that, on average, only one in 10 school lunches nationwide includes beef.

The dilemma: how to get beef on school lunch trays at a price districts could afford.

“A lot of our work at MDA has to do with getting Missouri products into Missouri schools,” shares Christi Miller, manager of MDA’s Missouri Grown program. “In the past, we hadn’t focused on using local proteins because they are so much more expensive and harder to get in the quantities the schools need.”

Miller began by reaching out to other state agriculture departments to see what models and strategies were showing the most success in pairing local proteins with local school districts.

After considering which aspects other states were finding most successful, the team began looking at which components were complementary to Missouri’s beef industry and school system. MO Beef for MO Kids became a hybrid of the programming implemented in Nebraska and Montana.

To date, Miller says, Missouri’s program is the only program in the nation providing 100 percent locally donated beef.

Working together

Partnerships, all agree, are the backbone of the MO Beef for MO Kids program.

“It takes a lot of people working together to make this program work,” shares cattleman Jim McCann of Miller, Missouri, who was instrumental in coordinating to the program.

“The biggest challenge this program sees is coordination,” he says. “When most producers decide a cow will be donated, that process happens pretty quickly. Producers do not want to feed a cow for the extra two months [it sometimes takes] to coordinate with the processor.

So staying on top of the situation with phone calls to producers and the processor, and making sure I am going to the school to ask about when we have to have more beef, has been a commitment.”

Most processors have a waiting period in order to fit new processing orders into their schedule.

Linda Jones, director of development for Opaa! Food Management, agrees that getting the program set up is no small feat, but also shares that the benefits for the students far outweigh the time commitment.

“Opaa!’s role [in MO Beef for MO Kids] is to see that the beef on the menu is increased,” says Jones. “To do that, we have to create new menus.”

Keeping the menus in compliance with the added beef has taken some effort, Jones says. However, because of the multiple options the food management company offers students each day, the company was able to double the amount of beef on the menu and stay in compliance with the help of a registered dietician.

And while the beef being served is donated, it isn’t cost-free.

“We are paying the processing and the delivery to see that it gets into the school the right way,” says Jones. “The cost is cheaper than ordering from a prime vendor; a little less. The thing that balances out the donated cost of the local beef compared to the purchase cost of other cheaper proteins, is that the kids have local beef on their plate more often.”

Beef is the highest-priced, center-of-the-plate item that a school district serves. The donations allow for the amount of beef served to be doubled, at minimum, which is the program’s goal for each new school it is incorporated into.

Seeing success

Cook says the addition of more beef to the menu has also increased the number of students eating school lunch.

“We serve an average of approximately 800 meals per day,” says Cook. “Participation in our lunch program is up 5 percent from this time last year.”

In addition to the opportunity to include more beef in lunches at no additional cost, Cook says the program has given the district the opportunity to stress the importance of the agriculture industry.

“We are also able to show them [students] how the food they eat is the result of someone else’s hard work,” says Cook. “Their food does not just show up – it is the result of the hard work of a farmer.”

With the success of the piloted program within the Mount Vernon district during the 2017-18 academic year, the MO Beef for MO Kids is gearing up to launch new partnerships with five additional school districts in Missouri for the 2018-19 school year.  end mark

PHOTO: Officials of Mount Vernon public schools, Missouri Department of Agriculture, Missouri Beef Industry Council and Missouri Cattleman’s Association, along with local cattlemen who donated to the program, pose for a photo during the MO Beef for MO Kids Farm to Table kickoff dinner. Photo courtesy of Missouri Department of Agriculture.

Laura Handke is a freelance writer based in Kansas. Email Laura Handke

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