In Wyoming, School Protein Enhancement Project Brings Local Meat to School Lunches
March 27, 2017 | Trish Popovitch
Eastern Wyoming is cattle country, a place where both traditional and grass fed beef ranches punctuate a landscape of rolling hills and sweeping plains all just a truck or horse ride away from the legendary Platte River. If you’ve never had a steak from a cow that’s spent its life absentmindedly meandering the wide open ranges and drinking the fresh clean water of Wyoming, then you’ve never had a good steak.
Thousands of Wyoming cattle make their way to South Dakota, Nebraska and across the country every year mostly due to a lack of slaughtering plants in The Equality State. This means ranchers are taking local meat and revenue out of state and local beef away from local consumers. Unfortunately, it is not economically viable for many small producers to pay for processing locally. The recently passed School Protein Enhancement Project Act 52 SF0123 hopes to ensure local Wyoming children have that local Wyoming meat in their school lunches while saving local school districts some much needed moolah.
The goal of the recently passed legislation is to increase the use of local meat in Wyoming schools by having local ranchers donate it to the school district. Champion and co-creator of the program, recently elected Senator Brian Boner of Converse County, wants to show local school districts that local meat isn’t only better for local students, it’s cheaper too.
“The exact amount will vary by district, but in general the savings will be on the order of $1.75 per donated pound for beef,” says Boner. “Even if the school districts had to shoulder the cost of processing by themselves, they would still be guaranteed roughly $1.25 per pound in savings. The focus of this program is to encourage our school districts to seek these donations.”
The School Protein Enhancement Project, Act 52 SF0123, passed the Wyoming legislature in early March and is the brainchild of Boner, Monty Gilbreath, the Converse County School District Food Services Director, and Brooke Brockman, a Training and Grants Coordinator for the Wyoming Department of Education. The program is funded with $25K for the school year 2017-2018 and will pay half the costs of processing of all local meats donated to the school districts lunch service. Districts must apply for funding with a written plan.
“It is important to note the school districts will realize significant savings regardless of whether the state helps with the processing costs,” says Boner. “All school districts will be judged based on their plans to bring in local protein regardless of current farm to school efforts. This program could be viewed as a supplement for school districts already using the USDA Farm to School Program for produce.”
All the meat must be donated and although Boner expects most of it to be beef, the Act allows for pork, lamb, poultry, bison and even game meat. The school will have the meat processed and the program will cover 50 percent of the cost. “All donated meat will be subject to state inspection at the processing plant, which is just performed to the same standards as any other meat product in our school lunches,” says Boner. “The rancher will benefit by showing the superior quality of fresh, local products. This gives any producer the opportunity to sell their products in more than just a commercial feedlot.”
Dissatisfaction with federal school lunch programs is nothing new in Wyoming, with six districts already opting out of subsidized lunches. Although some anti-federal programming appears politically motivated, one argument for leaving the federal system is a lack of protein and small portions for rural students who often need more calories due to working before and after school on their families’s lands.
In one Wyoming district, federal funding has been replaced with local protein donations and higher lunch prices with the school reporting an extra $12,000 in revenue and the ability to maintain the free and reduced lunch program at the same price to students as the federal program.
“I am optimistic this program will kickstart the process of livestock producers donating livestock to their local school districts,” says Boner. “While we still have some work to do promoting this legislation, the success and popularity of these programs in districts which have already pursued it is a positive sign.”
Wyoming has 60 school districts serving just over 90,000 students with the smallest school district (Sheridan District 3) having approximately 100 students. The amount of donated meat to cover the lunch menu needs of a given school (with some schools having as few as ten students) would vary greatly between districts.
With Wyoming’s recent economic downturn and former heavy reliance on the energy industry for state budget revenue, seeking approval for new funds this legislative session meant majority support for the program. Despite approved cuts to the state education funding for the upcoming fiscal year, the grant funding passed 23 to 2.