Report highlights best practices in Montana 'Beef to School' partnerships

Project developing an operational framework and toolkit for beef to school efforts.

A team of Montana State University (MSU) researchers, stakeholders and community partners known as the Montana Beef to School Project has written a case study report to help Montana beef producers, meat processors, schools and communities explore what factors make beef to school programs successful and encourage the use of local beef in every Montana school. The report, titled “Moooooving Forward Together: Strategies for Montana Beef to School,” was released online to coincide with National Farm to School Month in October.

"Farm-to-school" efforts are increasing nationwide, and since beef is one of Montana’s top agricultural products, beef-to-school efforts are increasing in Montana, according to Carmen Byker Shanks, assistant professor in the MSU department of health and human development and principal investigator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Western Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education-funded Montana Beef to School Project.

Montana has just more than 1 million residents, approximately 2.5 million cattle, thousands of beef producers, approximately 20 state and federally inspected beef processors and about 145,000 students across 821 schools, Byker Shanks noted.

“Beef is a natural component of farm-to-school efforts in Montana,” she said.

At the same time, schools, processors and ranchers are facing successes and challenges when attempting to make beef-to-school programs viable, Byker Shanks noted. Between 2015 and 2018, the Montana Beef to School Project is developing an operational framework and toolkit to decrease barriers and increase opportunities for Montana beef-to-school efforts. The case study report is one output of that work.

“These case studies provide lessons learned for producers, processors and schools when entering beef-to-school partnerships,” Byker Shanks said. “We want this report to contribute to understanding how to make farm to school generally more feasible in Montana. Farm-to-school programs are one way to ensure that students are connected with their state’s local agriculture and that meals provided at lunch are high in nutrients for optimum growth and development.”

Joel Schumacher, co-principal investigator of the Montana Beef to School Project and MSU Extension economics specialist, said the case studies are designed to highlight the needs of all key stakeholders in the beef-to-school process and inform strategies to make it easier to offer local beef to Montana schools. The partnerships represented in the case study span six school districts (Dillon, Hinsdale, Kalispell, Livingston, Somers Lakeside and Whitefish) that include 28 schools and 11,149 students, two producers (Lazy SR Ranch and Muddy Creek Ranch), two processors (Lower Valley Processing and Ranchland Packing) and one integrated producer and processor (Bear Paw Meats).

“Producers and processors seem very open to working with schools and expressed pride in the quality of products and services they could offer,” said Tommy Bass, co-principal investigator of the Montana Beef to School Project and MSU Extension livestock environment associate specialist. “While a variety of local beef supply chain models were documented in the case study, all included community values, trust and economic potential as key to beef-to-school partnerships.”

The Montana Beef to School Project is a three-year collaborative project involving several Montana beef producers and processors, schools and many stakeholders represented in the Montana Beef to School Coalition. It is funded by a $220,000 grant from USDA’s western region program.

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