In recent years, Americans have shown a strong interest in understanding where their food comes from. How is it raised? How is it processed? Where does it go from there?
In Montana, one of the country’s largest states for agriculture, food is all around us. Approximately 64% of Montana’s acreage is used for farming and ranching, and the state’s cattle population is more than double the number of people. The Montana Beef to School Project is a farm to school program that is working to get this locally grown food onto students’ lunch trays.
“The Beef to School Project explores how to increase the amount of local beef served in K-12 Montana schools,” explains Carmen Byker Shanks, a professor in the MSU Department of Health and Human Development and principal investigator in the Beef to School Project. “Beef is one of the main ag products in the state, so it makes sense to serve this local protein source to our local schools.”
The project has been working for several years to collect data, publish case studies, develop technical materials, and provide assistance to schools, producers, and processors to help them work together in a way that is beneficial to all parties. The Beef to School Project developed a case study report that highlights beef to school program stories with 28 schools across six Montana school districts, two producers, two processors, and one integrated producer and processor. (Beyond these, even more schools, producers, and processors partner to bring local beef to school nutrition programs across the state.)
“One of our main findings is that schools, producers, and processors value the community aspect of beef to school programs,” says Byker Shanks. “Beef to school provides high quality protein to students, sourced directly from the local area, and can support the local economy.”
While this sort of program should be a win-win for all involved, the Beef to School Project is working with project partners to understand how to overcome challenges that prevent local beef from being sourced in every Montana school. For one, connecting schools with local beef producers and processors is not always an easy task. In response, Beef to School has created materials for schools to help educate the staff on how to source local beef.
This leads into the second challenge – logistics; how do schools actually source the beef? There are a lot of regulations about sourcing food, with strict safety precautions because the food is being served to children. Schools, producers, and processors have to verify that beef fed to students meets all legal requirements.
Because there is so much involved in getting local beef into schools, financial feasibility is obviously a concern. Schools don’t generally have a lot of money to spend on lunches – the average daily budget is $0.36-3.22 per student – so it can be difficult for schools to source food that is nutritious, affordable, and appealing. Meanwhile, producers and processors may be interested in contributing to school lunch programs but disinclined to get involved long-term if the transaction isn’t at least somewhat profitable.
The Beef to School Project’s case study, Moooooving Forward Together, outlines some of the ways in which all parties involved can overcome these obstacles to create a sustainable beef to school program. Currently, 47% of school districts in Montana are buying local meat and 41% plan to increase spending on local foods in the future. The Beef to School Project is happy to provide technical assistance for anyone interested in getting involved.