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Burgers from local cattle are on the school lunch menu in S.D.

A sustainable beef-to-school initiative benefits both students and the community.
Photograph: Shutterstock

The answer to the question “Where’s the beef?” is within the boundaries of one South Dakota school district.

In January, Wall School, located in the western part of the state, launched a pilot program to source its ground beef from a local licensed meatpacker.

To get the program off the ground, a cattle rancher in the district donated the first 90 pounds of beef, and the meatpacker offered to process it.

The donation of product and labor made it possible for Food Service Director Lynn Dunker to divert some of her USDA beef dollars to other commodities, enabling her to add more fresh fruits and vegetables to the menu.

But the transition from USDA burger patties to local beef wasn’t without its challenges. Dunker had to get the right people to the table at the right time, meet USDA compliance, invest in training and add an educational component for students, she says.

Size matters

To begin, Dunker studied successful beef-to-school programs in Montana and Nebraska and enlisted her district’s economic development committee to ensure feasibility. The packer then had to work with the USDA to calibrate the beef into patties that conformed to school lunch specs.

“USDA provides precooked patties that maintain the same weight when heated, but the packer was supplying raw patties,” she explains. “He had to make sure they were the correct weight when cooked down and measure up to the nutritional guidelines.” The USDA site provides a calculator to facilitate that step.

Next, Dunker had to train her kitchen staff to cook the raw burgers. The first day, it was truly trial and error, but eventually, the timing worked out, she says. “It was more work for us, but it was worth it in the end when I heard one child say, ‘I bet I branded this cow.’”

That comment was made possible through the program’s educational component, a USDA requirement of a beef-to-school program. The Future Farmers of America received a grant from Farm Credit Services to educate students about the program and the source of their burgers. The ground beef also goes into tacos, sloppy Joes and other school lunch favorites.

Next steps

Kids eating cheese burgers school lunch

Wall School will pilot the program through the spring, making it permanent after summer break. “Starting next fall, beef will be purchased through the meat plant following USDA procurement guidelines,” says Dunker. The plant will buy beef from local producers and the district will lock in prices with the packer.

“It won’t save the district any money in the long run, but there are sustainability benefits,” says Dunker. Not only is the beef less processed, but sourcing from local ranchers and packers also pumps money back into the community.

The program has gotten positive feedback from both the ranchers and students’ parents, motivating the district to move ahead with it. In addition, “we’ve heard from a lot of South Dakota schools that are interested in the possibility of serving their local beef to students,” says Dunker.

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