Local beef in local schools: A win-win

Special Report by Chris Graham

It would seem to stand to reason that the breadbasket of Virginia could probably provide at least something in the way of homegrown food for schoolchildren.

And then you think about it for a second, and it occurs to you that, you know, maybe it makes sense that like everybody else we just order food for school lunches the way everybody else does, by going the mass-supplier route.

I mean, seriously – it’s not like you can just call up Farmer Fred over in West Augusta and get him to save you a side of beef and a bushel of corn without having to have the USDA and numerous other acronyms involved in the effort.

It took Amy Brown reading a magazine article about local food and then committing most of her free time over the past nine months to making local-foods-in-local-schools happen in the Shenandoah Valley to get us to where we are today.

“It was everybody coming together to make it work,” said Brown, of Waynesboro, who has spearheaded the effort that will have school systems in the Augusta and Rockbridge areas purchasing 30,000 pounds of local beef that will be served in local schools in the 2010-2011 school year.

The impetus was an article on food security that went into detail on the beef recall that Brown learned upon doing some research on the Internet included among its affected localities the Augusta County Public School system.

“I just thought, This is just ridiculous that this is happening almost daily somewhere,” said Brown, who on her own started investigating what could be done to work around the problem locally, and later organized a meeting with local school nutrition directors to examine what would need to be done to get local beef into local school systems.

It was obvious early on “that it was going to be difficult to change the process,” Brown said.

“It’s not a simple system. It’s pretty complex,” Brown said. “They’ve agreed to cook their own ground beef, because we don’t have a cooking facility yet, and they were getting it cooked. So they’re cooking their meat. They need to get freezer units in a central location. We’ve got some work to do to make it truly work. But all of us believe that we can do it.”

The project team includes Charlie Potter, a partner in Donald’s Meat Processing in Rockbridge County and the owner of a cattle farm, Buffalo Creek Beef, that will be supplying the local beef. The farm and the processing plant have to meet USDA certification standards, one, and two they have to be able to meet the demand for 30,000 pounds of beef to make the project economically viable.

“The school systems have a very low price point. The volume is what is making it work. They are getting the product at a price point that works for them. The only way to get this to work for them at a local level was to get that scale,” said Chris Carpenter, a special-projects coordinator in the dining-services unit at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, another spearhead to the local-food program.

Even getting the price point that they wanted wasn’t a guarantee that the project was going to be a go.

“You’re right, it’d be easier to do it the way we’ve always done it. I can order online from the government or order from merchants or a commercial food distributor and be done with it,” said Sandy Neff, the nutrition program supervisor for Augusta County Public Schools.

But having been one of the school divisions involved in last year’s beef recall, “and that was beef from our government,” Neff said, from the perspective of Augusta County Public Schools, “I think this movement, buy local, buy fresh, know where your food is coming from, was something that was going to have an appeal to us,” Neff said.

Many of the logistical issues will still have to be worked out. “It’s not just going to the farmer and saying, We can do this,” said Shirley Eagle, who heads up the nutrition program in Staunton Public Schools, which will be purchasing 3,000 pounds of ground beef in the local-beef program in the 2010-2011 school year.

“The beef growers have to be USDA-approved. The processing company has to be USDA-approved. It’s not like just going to your next-door neighbor and saying, Oh, you’re growing beef, I’d like to have some of that,” Eagle said.

Neff is thinking through issues involving storage and delivery, primarily. “We’ll figure out the problems as they come up that we maybe hadn’t foreseen. But with this many minds working together, it’s going to work. And knowing Amy, she’ll deliver it herself if she has to,” Neff said.

The benefits to buying local are manyfold.

“I think by getting the local beef it’s going to be better for our school system,” said Tammy Coffey, the nutrition coordinator in Waynesboro Public Schools, which will be purchasing 3,500 pounds of ground beef from the local program in the 2010-2011 school year. “I hope it goes over well. I’d like to be able to go totally all-local next year or the year after. I think it’s healthier, and it’s good for the local farmers. I’m real excited.”

“One, this is food as an economic tool. This is economic development. These schools buying local are having an impact on our economy. That’s the type of opportunity that we’re looking at,” Carpenter said.

“The best thing for the kids is that this beef is antiobiotic- and hormone-free. To me, that’s a big deal,” Carpenter said. “And then let’s throw in the carbon miles. That’s 30,000 pounds of beef that at max travels less than 100 miles. Versus beef that has to travel 3,000 miles to get here. This is a win-win-win.”

One other benefit that Neff foresees comes in the educational arena.

“Augusta County is big in agriculture. I can see our local student organizations getting involved in this. There’s not a lot of people who have been trained in meat cutting, in butchering. That may develop some training programs for kids coming up, for jobs,” Neff said.

Neff and others interviewed for this story say none of what has happened on the local-beef front would have happened without Amy Brown getting things started in this direction and then keeping things moving in this direction.

“She’s been the main mover and shaker on this. She knows the daily operations of what we deal with. All the research, the leg work, the phone calls, she’s done it,” Neff said.

“She’s not being paid. She does have a life. And yet this is very important to her. She has a lot of passion. She’s been the detail person to make it happen. A lot of things hit my desk that I say, That makes sense, love to do it. We’re basically a two-person operation here. With 21 schools and Genesis, it’s busy. She made it happen,” Neff said.

“It’s not about credit. It’s about doing the right thing,” is as close as Brown will come to taking credit for the work that she has done.

“There’s still a lot to do to get this to work. And my goal is to see us eventually in a place where all the beef served in local schools comes from local farmers. That could be a ways off, but I think it can be done,” Brown said.

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