Four Choteau women are asking community members to work with them to provide locally-grown beef for the Choteau Public Schools hot lunch program.

Ranchers Cathy Campbell, Carli Neal and Misti Redland and former rancher Darlene Yeager are working to bring a locally-grown beef program to Choteau Public Schools, patterning this venture after a similar program being used in Winnett Public Schools and other public schools.

“In our area, we produce quality cattle, yet we ship our animals away while our school gets all its beef from USDA commodities,” Campbell said. “Why not use locally grown beef in our Choteau school and know our kids are eating high-quality beef?”

Campbell, Neal and Redland all work on local ranches, where they raise top-notch beef cattle of different breeds. Locally-grown Montana beef tastes better than commodities program beef and has no water or fillers so it goes farther and is more nutritious, Campbell says. The four women also have the support of the Teton CattleWomen organization for this project.

At the Winnett Public Schools, Campbell said, the community started a program where locally-raised beef cattle are donated each year to the school and those donations supply all the beef the school needs for the lunch program for one year.

Community members donate beef cattle, grain for finishing the animals, transportation to slaughter facilities, freezer space and monetary donations that help cover these costs and the costs of processing the beef at a USDA-inspected facility, she said.

Winnett uses about four cattle per year to serve 100 students and staff, Campbell said. Choteau Public Schools has a larger enrollment of more than 300 students and staff, of which about two thirds or 200 eat lunch at the school cafeteria.

Campbell and Redland, in an interview with the Acantha, said that a number of resources are available to help this program become a reality. The Montana State University Extension Service has a MontGuide called, “Getting Started with Beef to School,” that provides models, challenges, solutions and recommendations for getting locally-grown beef into school food service programs in Montana.

According to the MontGuide, Montana has about 2.5 million cattle, 20 state- and federally-inspected beef processors and about 145,000 students in 821 public schools.

“Considering these statistics, Montana is an ideal location to implement and evaluate local beef-to-school procurement programs,” the MontGuide says. “Many school foodservice directors are motivated to provide nutritious Montana agricultural products, including local beef, to students while supporting local ranches and meat-processing facilities.”

The USDA’s 2015 Farm to School Census shows that 42,587 schools nationwide purchased local foods for their school lunch and breakfast programs.

Campbell, Neal, Redland and Choteau teacher Elizabeth Jorden in mid-September attended workshops in Missoula, where they learned more about farm-to-school programs. They toured Missoula’s community garden, learned about school gardening basics and learned more about Missoula County Public Schools’ gardening and beef programs.

Redland said a lot of Montana schools already have locally-grown beef programs, and she and Campbell are continuing to gather more information about how these programs are structured in other communities.

Campbell said Greenfield, Power and Augusta public schools, for example, all have some form of program that brings locally-raised beef into the lunch program.

She said she and the others just want to help bring high-quality beef into Choteau Public Schools. If all the meat is donated, she said, students may be able to have more servings or the cooks may be able to use it to produce more “real,” not processed, entrees.

“I get really passionate when it comes to children. I think this could be a very beneficial program for the whole community,” Campbell said.

Campbell said Choteau’s school lunch head cook, Kara Garrett, and Superintendent Chuck Gameon both support exploring the idea of a locally-grown beef program here.

Campbell said Choteau Public Schools receives free beef from the USDA Foods program so setting up a local beef program for the schools would have to be a zero-cost alternative.

She envisions the group signing up supporters who would donate money to the school to help acquire the meat and pay for the processing, transportation and storage costs. Supporters could be organizations, businesses or individuals. Also, she said, donations of beef on the hoof from area ranchers would be welcome.

She said the costs would likely be about $725 per animal (based on a 1,200-pound open cow at $.60 per pound) plus $450 for the slaughter and processing with an estimated yield of about 360 pounds of hamburger. The cafeteria serves about 120 to 150 pounds of hamburger a month during the nine months school is in session, so four to five animals would be needed to meet that volume.

Campbell said she is doing research on finding USDA-inspected beef processing facilities in the area, and looking at options for transportation to and from a processing plant since there are no federally-approved slaughter plants in Teton County.

She said Choteau Public Schools has already ordered its commodities beef for the 2018-19 school year, so they are working on getting a local-beef program ready for the 2019-20 school year.

“Personally, we are hard pressed to think of a better charitable idea than being part of making certain our kids get to eat our high-quality, locally grown beef,” Campbell said. “We hope you feel the same and will join us in making this program a reality for our own school. Let’s all band together and see that our children benefit from our locally grown beef.”

Redland said the informal group welcomes input from community members and is looking for people to volunteer to help make this program happen.

To get involved with starting a beef-to-school program in Choteau, community members should contact Campbell at 590-8328, Redland at 466-2487 or Neal at 590-2976.