Schools switch to local beef suppliers

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Kalispell Public Schools’ food service program is moving to source food locally and is saving money by doing so.

The 2,000 hamburgers served weekly to Kalispell students now come from beef raised on Kalispell and Polson cattle ranches. Previously, the beef patties were nationally sourced.

The district was able to make the switch after Lower Valley Meat Processing near Kalispell purchased a machine capable of making the necessary patty size. Closer delivery means less transportation. The department will realize a $750 savings annually as a result, and $35,000 will be spent in the local economy, Food Service Director Jenny Montague said.

Montague said the switch gives her department the ability to maintain control of the source and processing of beef served in the district, which also serves Trinity Lutheran and Olney-Bissell schools.

“This deal will save us money, and our meat will be healthier because these cows never see a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) and consume a much higher percentage of grass than the cows shipped from elsewhere,” Montague said.

She has worked closely with Montana FoodCorps volunteer Katie Wheeler in sourcing and pricing local ingredients. Wheeler acts as a liaison between farmers and the district.

“This is Montana, we’re in cattle country,” Wheeler said. “It would be silly for us not to be purchasing beef locally.”

Some of the cattle ranchers working with the district’s food service program include Steve Hughes of Polson, and Dwayne and Dirk Lybeck, Bruce Severson and Myron Mast, all of the Kalispell area.

“Most schools get beef from national corporations and I’m sure if you tried very, very, hard you could trace it back to where it came from, but it’s a lot easier if I wanted to drive past Lybeck ranch, I could see how the cattle are being fed,” Wheeler said.

Serving healthier lunches becomes more important as more students are served. As of April, 45 percent or 2,614 students are eligible for free or reduced lunches. One of the purposes of FoodCorps is to combat childhood obesity and diabetes, Wheeler said.

Montague and Wheeler agree that much progress has been made in sourcing food in-state, but their momentum won’t stop anytime soon. Montague’s goal is for the food service department to incorporate 30 percent of Montana products into the menu by 2014.

Currently, about $15,000 (10 percent) of Kalispell schools’ food budget is spent mainly on fruit and vegetables sourced in-state.

Wheeler and Montague’s current endeavor is to use Montana-made buns for the burgers.

If the district secures a deal with a Montana bread producer, it would mean more than 25 percent of the department’s food budget will be spent in-state.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com

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