Better beef in Burke: Ranchers feeding school students with local cattle
BURKE — Living in cattle country, the idea made too much sense for Sara Grim.
Locally raised beef should be served in the nearby Burke High School cafeteria, the passionate rancher thought. So Grim and her husband felt it was time to make a difference in the community.
Grim said she had noticed states like Nebraska and North Dakota were able to get local programs going. In Nebraska, for example, 50 school districts are part of a program to bring local beef into school lunches through the state's department of agriculture.
South Dakota — which had more than 1.8 million head of beef cattle as of January 2017 and the fifth-most cattle by state in the U.S. — has no such formal program. Since 2016, Grim and her group of local women who support the cattle industry — the Rosebud Rancherettes — led the push to make the program happen locally, even if there were some frustrations.
"We just ran into a lot of brick walls," she said.
But the right connections were made, and the help of Burke Superintendent Erik Person put the donation of three cows to the school district into action. Earlier this month, they held a hamburger feed for lunch to celebrate the kickoff of the program. That was held on a Friday. It was the third time Burke students had eaten local beef that week, after main entrees of tacos and beef stroganoff.
Person credited Grim and her devoted group of Rancherettes with making the project work.
"You have to have that push there," he said. "Just coming from the school, I don't know how well it would have worked. ... I never asked anyone to donate any beef. I didn't have to."
'We have a better product now'
Grim, 64, said her frustration was created by the reports of children going home hungry from lunch at school because of changes at the federal level. In 2012, then-First Lady Michelle Obama led the charge to establish new standards for school meals, primarily creating minimums on fruits, vegetables and whole grain servings while creating maximum levels for salt, sugar and fat content, along with reduced portion sizes in meals. Those changes were criticized in states like South Dakota.
"We're a little frustrated like that as ranch women and ranch wives, because we're serving beef all the time," Grim said. "It's our own beef. I always like to tell people we like to eat our mistakes around here. Our good stuff, it probably ends up in New York on somebody's plate for $150."
In 2017, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue relaxed some of those requirements, primarily on whole grains, salt and milk.
Grim said the idea came from visiting her daughter near Mullen, Nebraska, a community of about 450 people 180 miles away in the northwest part of the state that's quite similar to Burke. They were able to get a local beef program in their school.
"I just thought there had to be a way we could get this going," she said.
Ground beef is provided for the nation's schools by the National School Lunch Program. Purchased by the USDA, it is donated to almost every school district in the country. But the source of that meat is generally national, provided by meatpackers that can meet the demands of 30 million children on a daily basis.
Person admitted it's difficult for a school to turn down commodity beef, a product that's essentially free to them. He said he knew the program would conflict with the Child Adult Nutritional Services program in the South Dakota Department of Education, which oversees school lunches in South Dakota.
"We were essentially going to be fighting with our regulatory agency. ... I didn't know if it was worth it to replace a product that's basically free, and replacing a product that we didn't really have any complaints about," Person said. "Granted, we have a better product now."
Person was surprised when he approached the CANS office in the fall and found it was cooperative about making Burke's program work. He said the people there were "all for the idea," and credited the school's program organization for making that happen. A committee consisting of Person, a school board member, the school's main and assistant cooks and two Rancherettes worked to implement the program at the school.
"The easiest answer is always no. I've learned that in all facets of running a school district," Person joked. "It helps to go with a specific question and a plan, and say, 'This is what we're going to do and it's going to work this way,' and map it out. They're more likely to say yes, because they can see where it's going to go."
Meat on the table
Grim and Person — who have known each other for years and are related through marriage, as Person married Grim's niece — found common ground with their plan through what they call a three-level approach.
Level One, which consists of getting the beef donated, butchered and into the schools and served to the students, is finished. Second is creating new menu items and adjusting current recipes. And third is increasing the consumption of beef. Person said the third item is essentially happening now as well, and he expects that an expanded menu and recipes will likely be in place by August when a new school year begins. The school district serves between 175 and 200 meals a day, Person said.
Grim is also leading the drive to get a 90 percent lean meat/10 percent fat split into the school's menu. Currently, the school's menu items generally call for the 85/15 split.
"In my mind, and the cattle women's mind, the less processed food, the better," Grim said. "Eventually, we want a leaner product with more protein."
But there were hurdles, something Person said a small school can count on with a new program. The school district needed a place that would butcher and process the meats, all while meeting the federal inspection requirements. Because it's butchering being done for a school, the restrictions are tighter, and a federal inspector was used to check both the butchering process and the end product.
Both Grim and Person were frustrated when a regional butchering shop canceled their appointment twice. That led them to Hudson Meats and Sausage in Hudson, South Dakota. It came recommended by others, and a last-second cancellation at the meat market allowed Burke to get its first cow in.
Grim said they're using donated cull cows for this first go with the program, donated by her family and three other local families. She admitted she was surprised when they determined that three cows would last the rest of the school year, but Person noted Burke is a small school, and every cut of the cow is being made into ground beef.
Person added that the program has its challenges because it's not a homogenous product, like a chicken nugget, sold by a large food service company to schools.
"Every product is the same, and they can tell you exactly what's in that chicken nugget, down to the molecule. It's quantifiable, but not necessarily healthier," he said. "When you go to something that's home grown, it's harder to get in the menus because it's harder to quantify, because how do you say exactly what's in every bite of product?"
Bringing more beef in schools
There's a waiting list of sorts for meat donors for the Burke effort. Grim freely acknowledges that's because farm and cattle prices are in, as she calls it, "the basement right now."
The cow her family donated to the program earlier this year was worth between $650 and $700. Previously, they could almost double that at market. The Grim Ranch well off the beaten path, down a one-lane road in the hills near Missouri River, and about 30 miles from Burke.
A community dinner from the Rosebud Rancherettes in December raised $1,300, which covered the processing costs of the first two cows. Grim said she will still help organize donations and make sure cattle get to the butcher, but ultimately wants it to be a program the Burke district takes ownership of, now that it's up-and-running.
"We probably will step back," Grim said of the Rancherettes. "We want them to run with it. We have people lined up waiting to donate cows. We will find the cows, and we will get them to the butcher, and that's where we want to stay involved."
Person was appreciative of that, especially from a logistical standpoint.
"As a school district, we don't have a stock trailer. We could load them into a school bus but that could get a little funny," he quipped. "It would be nice if they could continue to drop off the live critters for us."
Burke's project comes simultaneously as the Wall School District gets a similar program off the ground on Jan. 4. Wall is expecting to use about five head of cattle in its first year and process them at the local meat locker, which has the proper certifications.
Person said he's had a lot of interest from other school districts — all West River in South Dakota — about how the program can be replicated, and he admitted it's a uniquely small town solution.
"It's kind of a small town, West River thing," he said. "You can't be afraid to try something. We're just not afraid to do that in our school district."
Grim said she's voiced her frustration about South Dakota's lack of beef in schools programming to state officials and trade groups and will likely continue to do so. But she's happy with Burke's program now.
"I love this community, because it's like, 'We can do this,'" she said. "It's kind of cool."
Person is pleased with the program in part because it's energized an important part of Burke's residents.
"The biggest plus for us is that we've got a group of people in our community—and it goes beyond the cattle producers and the ranchers—we've got a group of people that are excited about something we've got going on at school," he said. "That's the big benefit for us, as well, as being able to serve a consistent and healthy product for our kids."