Montana Beef, it’s What’s for Lunch

By Beacon Staff

There’s new meat being served in cafeterias across town.

In the latest step toward offering students healthier, homemade meals, the Kalispell Public Schools Food Service recently began dishing out hamburgers from Montana beef in all its schools.

Instead of using nationally sourced commercial beef, School District 5 now receives its burger patties from Lower Valley Processing Co. It is sourced from Montana ranches, including ones in the Flathead Valley.

Jennifer Montague, the new director of the Food Service, said the switch provides students with a healthier meal, will annually infuse $35,000 into the local economy and saves money thanks to decreased transportation costs.

Since taking over last fall, Montague has championed an overhaul of the district’s school meal program that serves all the elementary, middle and high schools in the Kalispell district, plus Olney-Bissell and Trinity Lutheran. Her goal is for the Food Service, which is self-sufficient with the help of federal grants, to cook more meals from scratch using fresh, local ingredients and products. Local vegetables have become commonplace along with seasonal fruits. The 2,000 burgers served each month are now made with all Montana-made ingredients except for the buns. But Montague hopes to find a local source for those, too. By 2014, she wants the district to receive at least 30 percent of the district’s food from within the state.

“I feel like we’ve made serious progress. I’m excited about (bringing Montana-made beef to Kalispell’s schools),” she said. “Mostly I’m excited about the kids’ positive response. We have kids asking for the recipes for their moms.”

School meals in town are in higher demand than ever before. More than 4,500 students in 11 schools eat a provided meal five days a week, and those numbers have continued to grow this year. Part of the reason is because the number of students who are eligible for free or reduced meals has increased. Depending on the school, between 36 and 72 percent of students qualify for meal support, according to Superintendent Darlene Schottle.

The switch to Montana beef was made possible after Lower Valley Processing purchased a new machine that could make the necessary patty sizes in bulk for the district.

The “pink slime” controversy was only further motivation to buy local. National outcry erupted recently following the discovery of a low-cost blend of ammonia-treated beef in hamburgers and other foods that the United States Department of Agriculture had been serving to school lunch programs across the country. U.S. health officials have cleared ammonia-treated food as safe, but concerned consumers remain skeptical.

In Kalispell, the beef being served to students is from just down the road, literally. Montague said the meat that ends up on students’ plates comes from several local operations, including the Hughes Ranch in Polson, and a few in and around Kalispell owned by Bruce Severson, Myron Mast and Dwayne and Dirk Lybeck.

“This deal will save us money and our meat will be healthier because these cows never see a (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation),” Montague said. “They consume a much higher percentage of grass than the cows shipped from elsewhere. Also they will be slaughtered under safe and humane conditions, with important E. coli inspections done locally. And did I mention it’s less expensive.”