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Cattlemen, Community Initiate Sustainable School Lunch Program

By the Nebraska Beef Council

The tides of nutrition advice are constantly swirling as dietary guidelines have shifted focus and favor to sustainable food production methods while reevaluating the role red meat plays in a healthy dietary pattern. However, the term ‘sustainable’ is as fluid as the nutrition premise it is intended to describe. To elucidate this issue, one group of Nebraska producers and community members have worked together to create a program that exemplifies sustainable practices by merging animal agriculture with school nutrition.

The Titan Beef Boosters Program of Thayer Central Community Schools was an idea conceived by Rob Marsh, local cattle producer in the area. Through commitments and donations by local cattlemen and community supporters, the school will provide students with an increased weekly supply of local, nutritious beef offerings. The program was initiated through a series of sustainable concepts to ensure implementation for multiple years, which in turn, delivers a far-reaching impact on local school nutrition.

There are multiple avenues for program involvement. Producers can sign a commitment letter to donate a quality animal within a three-year period and monetary donations can also be made through a Community Foundation to help cover the processing costs for the donated animals. No individuals are asked to donate more than once every three years, and the program currently has verbal commitments from over 100 cattlemen, businesses, and individuals in the local community. “We have a huge group of positive people that are pitching in to make this happen,” said Marsh. “Everyone works hard and they want to be part of an idea that could really help all the children in our school district.”

Working in-step with the Nebraska Department of Education Nutrition Services to enhance the national School Lunch Program standards, the Titan Beef Boosters program will allow the school to increase its biweekly beef offerings by 50 percent, up from two servings every ten days, to three servings. Servings sizes are set by the state and will not be affected, however, the donated beef will largely be distributed in the form of ground beef and stew meat.  “People are happy to know that the money the district saves from the donated beef will be used to improve other aspects of our food service program,” said Thayer Central superintendent Drew Harris. He added that the funds will “allow the school to purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables and purchase new equipment to focus on additional ‘from scratch’ cooking.”

Likewise, all the donated beef will be processed in federally USDA inspected lockers and stored in compliance with all state regulations in a local grocery.   Central Market owner Steve Anderson volunteered to assist with the program because “it allows the beef producer, local business, or concerned citizen to be involved in the school, town, and future of our young people in a way we never had the opportunity to do so before.” In the same way the Titan Beef Booster program alleviates strain on the local school food budget, Anderson looks to do the same for local families through the development of a Beef Voucher. Embodying the community collaborations of the Beef Booster program, Anderson’s Beef Voucher will work to extend the nutritional benefits of local beef to youth and families in the area.

Besides providing high quality, locally raised beef for Thayer Central Community School students, the Titan Beef Booster program looks to extend learning opportunities on the relationship between nutrition and agriculture through a newly implemented FFA curriculum.  Agriculture is a prevalent enterprise with widespread economical impact across the state of Nebraska, yet many students removed from the industry have fairly limited knowledge of the practices and contributions agriculture plays in their daily lives. As Community Foundation coordinator Patrick Kenner described it, “often times we can teach with words and books, but if there is not an experience to go along with our education, our efforts do not reach productive soil.” According to Kenner, the Titan Beef Booster program bridges this gap “by bringing fresh, locally produced beef to our students, and awareness of the local beef industry to our own community, we are creating a more memorable learning experience for all.”

In a state where cattle outnumber people four to one, the Titan Beef Booster program provides a personal aspect to the fresh beef served in school.  Local cattleman Gregg Wiedel supports the program and feels the benefits for the rural community will be far-reaching, “it’s great for youth to learn about the production of beef in the local community. When they’re able to put a face to the beef that is donated to the school, they become conscientious of how beef is raised and will hopefully become strong advocates for the beef community.” Kenner agrees, “there is usually a personal story between every producer and every animal—this program will also help us connect the producer and their stories to the quality beef that is enjoyed in the cafeteria line.”

The community-supported Titan Beef Booster program will launch in the fall of the 2015-2016 school year. Mitch Rippe of the Nebraska Beef Council is excited by the opportunities the program presents.

“In a state where our farmers and ranchers work so closely together throughout the entire beef supply chain to produce arguably the world’s best beef, I hope a great program like this will serve as a template for numerous communities to enhance student nutrition by coupling nutrient rich beef with whole grains and fresh fruit and vegetable options,” said Rippe. “We all know that beef is what’s for dinner in Nebraska, and by using the model laid out in Thayer Central, hopefully we can extend that message to school lunch programs throughout the state.”

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