The South Routt school district is a rural district with just over 400 students attending its three schools. It is also among a small but growing number of Colorado districts where local, grass-fed beef is now on the school lunch menu.
It started last spring when South Routt parent Jane Colby applied for a $1,500 grant from Colorado Action for Healthy Kids to help cover the cost of the more expensive beef. She won the grant on behalf of the district, and this year, some of the district’s burritos, taco salads and spaghetti sauces contain ground beef from cattle raised in grassy fields about 25 miles away.
“We live in this ranching community and I myself like to buy the local beef,” Colby said.
She believes local beef raised on grass with no added hormones or antibiotics is healthier than traditional feedlot beef. It’s also more expensive. The district pays $3.48 a pound for the ground beef it gets from Yampa Valley Beef every month.
The district pays about $2 a pound for beef from a food service supplier and also receives beef from the USDA’s School/Child Nutrition Commodities program.
Even at $3.48 a pound, the district’s price is about a dollar less than Yampa Valley Beef’s wholesale price of $4.55. Sonja Shoemaker, who owns the company with her husband Wayne, said they agreed to the lower price because they wanted to help the district provide local beef to students.
“I was surprised they could get a grant and get this going,” said Shoemaker. “We can’t compete with Sysco. We can’t compete with those government programs…We appreciate them stepping out and wanting to do that.”
A growing trend
Although there’s no exact tally of school districts that use local beef in their cafeterias, the number seems to be growing, said Jeremy West, nutrition service director for Weld County District 6 and chairman of the Colorado Farm to School Task Force. He estimated that a dozen districts in the state use some local grass-fed beef in student meals.
“We’re very excited to hear districts making these changes,” he said. “Farm to school isn’t easy.”
Weld District 6, which is in the second year of a move toward majority scratch cooking, is currently in the bid process for beef patties from cows raised with no added antibiotics or hormones and at least partially on grass. West said if a viable bid comes through, local beef hamburgers will debut in February in the high school cafeterias, where some weeks feature a “make-your-own” burger bar.
“We want a better hamburger to serve in that format,” West said.
If the switch is successful, West hopes to implement the same change for burgers served in middle and elementary schools, and ultimately switch to local beef for all beef-based meals served in the district.
It’s unclear whether the discovery last spring that some school ground beef contained ground-up meat scraps treated with ammonium hydroxide has prompted districts to join the local beef movement. Colby, the parent who spearheaded the local beef effort in South Routt, said she applied for the grant before the “pink slime” episode.
West said while the uproar didn’t affect Weld District 6, it may have sparked a greater interest in local beef in other districts.
“That could have been a springboard for people…to say, ‘Let’s go find something a little less processed.”
As an early adopter of local beef, Colorado Springs District 11 also escaped the “pink slime” controversy. The 28,000-student district began a gradual switch from government commodity beef in 2007, focusing first on hamburger patties served at the district’s high schools.
Since 2010, all beef served in the district comes from Ranch Foods Direct, a meat-packing facility and retail market based in Colorado Springs with a cattle ranch in western Kansas. The beef comes from cattle partially raised on grass with no added hormones or antibiotics.
“We immediately had success with the fresh flavor, and the texture of the beef was so much better,” said Rick Hughes, director of food and nutrition services for District 11.
In neighboring Falcon School District 49, Nutrition Services Director Monica Deines-Henderson switched to bulk ground beef from Ranch Foods Direct three years ago.
“I’m a firm believer in keeping food as natural as possible for the students,” she said.
In keeping with department’s “simple food” slogan, the district aims to use fresh, minimally processed ingredients that have no added preservatives, dyes, growth hormones or antibiotics.
Deines-Henderson said although nutrition was her top priority in switching to local beef, “Helping the local economy is big too.”
Overcoming the obstacles
Switching to grass-fed local beef doesn’t come without challenges for school food service departments. In addition to tight budgets, there may be limited kitchen facilities or a lack of staff training on handling and cooking raw meat.
In the South Routt school district, the local beef grant was simply not enough to cover more than 20 percent of the district’s 500-pound monthly order. Susan Hart, the district’s food services director, said she still uses USDA commodity beef as well as pre-cooked hamburger patties with soy filler.
Like most food service directors, Hart believes hamburgers are an ideal use of local beef because the meat’s higher quality is more obvious than when it’s incorporated into dishes like chili or spaghetti sauce. She hopes the local beef program will continue next year with a few refinements.
“I would really like to spend a little more and have them process it into burgers,” said Hart.
Rick Hughes, food and nutrition services director in District 11, agrees that higher quality beef costs more but believes it’s still affordable for any district. The key is taking a hard look at the budget, he said. For example, Hughes and his team eliminated some of the paper products used on cafeteria trays after discovering they added 3-5 cents to the cost of each meal.
Finding a high-quality beef producer is also a challenge in some districts.
West, Weld County District 6 director, said, “For us, it’s been hard to source, which you wouldn’t think in Weld County, which has more cows than people…The quality of beef we want can be hard to find.”
Safe food-handling techniques are also an issue for districts introducing raw beef products, particular hamburger patties. Hughes said that is one of the reasons District 11 introduced local beef gradually.
“It was scary for us at first,” he said.
Today, the district has at least one employee in all 65 serving locations certified by the ServSafe Food Safety program created by the National Restaurant Association. West said the same is true for all 31 kitchens in Weld County 6.
“It’s a matter of staff education,” said West.