Community supports cash-strapped school districts with meat

By LEE FARREN

For the Capital Press

Budget cuts at schools over the past few years have meant less beef on student lunch menus across the country.

In Baker County, Ore., beef producers are making up the difference. During the 2009-2010 school year area ranchers plan to donate more than 30 beef cattle to local schools.

"One family had some kids in school and felt they weren't getting the right nutrition," said Dan Forsea, president of the Baker County Livestock Association.

In January 2009 that family and two others donated three animals, valued at $450 to $500 each, to the Pine Eagle School District. More ranchers wanted to participate, and Forsea calculated what it would take to provide beef to all the schools in Baker County and the nearby town of North Powder. In March 2009 he talked about it with the Livestock Association. Nine more ranchers offered to donate animals in July.

When the Oregon Cattlemen's Association decided to hold its June midyear meeting in Baker City and asked the Livestock Association to host a tour and a dinner, Forsea had another good idea.

"What an opportunity to have a auction," Forsea said.

The donated auction items brought in more than $7,000 for what was now being called the Beef to Schools program. The money has paid for inspection fees, transportation and processing. Local businesses and ranchers have contributed additional funds as well.

An additional two dozen animals were processed in October and November, with more planned for April 2010.

Over 12,000 pounds of beef have been donated by 28 ranchers so far this school year, all of it turned into hamburger and distributed to area schools. Forsea estimated the donations have saved the schools $30,400.

The food program at Baker School District 5J has been running a deficit for the past couple of years, according to food service director Jean Dean. Thanks to the beef donation, the district won't need to purchase any beef this year.

"Before, we were constricted to a lot of chicken. Now we've been able to add things back in, like lasagna and meatballs. We are serving good quality beef and we're able to save money at the same time. It makes us feel good that our ranchers are providing the food -- that's big for kids," Dean said.

With plenty of coverage in the Baker City Herald, Beef to Schools has drawn statewide interest from other OCA county associations.

"I can't say we have a concerted statewide effort at this point, but we're going around talking at the county meetings, putting the idea to county associations that this is something Baker County has done," said OCA President Bill Moore.

Forsea, for one, is eager to spread the word.

"There has been a large interest statewide. After the OCA meeting in Baker we heard so much positive input from other people. They thought, what a way to get a positive pictures of ranchers out throughout the state," Forsea said.

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