Farmers, a local locker and students are all excited to have local pork on school lunch trays in northeast Iowa.
While hogs certainly are abundant in Iowa, getting locally grown and processed pork on the school lunch menu hasn’t been as easy as one might think. This story begins in 2012, when Nick McCann, Food Value Chain Coordinator for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach (ISUEO), organized classes to help small meat processors find ways to increase their financial viability. At the same time, school food service directors faced challenges meeting new school meal standards that were part of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. The food directors looked to the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative, where ISUEO is a core partner, to help them design menus to satisfy the new requirements.
McCann held two classes with locker managers in northeast Iowa, using funds from the Leopold Center’s competitive grants program. They focused on increasing business during the typically slow season in the spring, when locker owners face the tough choice between laying off, and potentially losing, workers or continuing to employ them at a financial loss to the business. That’s why many lockers rely on profits made during the busy fall season to cover losses during the slow season. McCann explains, “If you can just break even during slow season, you can convert those losses into gain. That money goes to the bottom line.”
Merrill Angell, owner of County Line Locker in Riceville, attended the meetings with McCann. He envisioned a connection between farm to school programs and his business. “I was always curious when they talked about local foods for schools, they didn’t talk about meat […] Why not supply our local schools or hospitals?”
Angell suggested starting with off-matrix hogs. He explained: “I commented on ‘seconds’ – belly ruptures or something that gets docked at packing plants … there’s nothing wrong with the hog. Why can’t we use these seconds […]?” Angell initially saw processing these hogs as a potential solution to increase business during the locker’s slow spring season. While not everything was in place yet to begin processing local pork for schools, the seeds had been planted.
Meanwhile, school food service directors were working with the northeast Iowa Initiative to create a seasonal menu. The menu repeats itself every five weeks and in the first year of that effort, districts focused on testing recipes and getting students’ approval. Beginning with the 2013-14 school year, ISUEO used a Leopold Center grant to develop the menu further, incorporating local foods into the mix and helping four schools double their purchases of local foods, and offering Farm to School educational programs.
About the same time, pork roasts were dropped from the USDA’s food availability lists and districts were forced to purchase pork at a higher cost from a mainline distributor. Referred to as “commodities,” these USDA food products are purchased by the federal government to support agricultural producers, and then sold to institutions (such as K-12 school districts) as part of a meal reimbursement program. The local pork product proved to be a competitive replacement.
A final piece fell into place in 2013. The Iowa Food Hub, a nonprofit aggregator and distributor of local food, received a USDA grant to purchase a refrigerated truck to deliver perishable local food products, including meat. They bought the truck at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year.
Everything was now on target to begin adding local meat to school meal trays. McCann and Teresa Wiemerslage, another ISUEO staffer who works with the Initiative, facilitated the first steps by organizing independent hog farmers, County Line Locker, the Iowa Food Hub, the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative, Luther College and other schools to begin serving local pork. The first meat was processed and delivered in February 2014. Angell recalls comments from food service staff about the appetizing smell of fresh pork cooking in the kitchen. “It’s fresh stuff[…] it’s only days old.”
During the past school year, County Line Locker has continued to process 10 hogs every other week for schools and Luther, with additional hogs occasionally processed during off-weeks. Processing cost is kept affordable by preparing bone-in primal cuts for schools and MSG-free bacon and hams for Luther.
So, how did County Line Locker manage to continue processing hogs for schools during the busy fall season? Angell came up with his own solution. When they fell behind in the fall, they froze deer that came in for custom processing. When business slowed in the spring, they were able to defrost the deer and process them further. Angell was pleased with this solution, “It extended our work schedule. We always drop off in the spring, so it helped fill the spring void and keep people employed.”
Farmers also are pleased. The Iowa Food Hub estimates that on average farmers receive an additional $15 per head by selling to schools rather than to off-matrix buyers, such as a barbeque company. Plus, farmers like the fact that their products help feed local students.
The four community school districts that created a seasonal cycle menu are Allamakee, Decorah, Postville and Turkey Valley. All exceeded their goal to double purchases of local food. They had hoped to buy $18,000 of locally grown food every year; in 2013-14, they purchased $22,897. During the past school year purchases by these four schools doubled again, totaling $52,400; schools served 3,315 pounds of pork (loin, roast and ground).