Imagine sinking your teeth into a juicy hamburger in the school cafeteria that your own fellow student body helped bring to the table. This month, that vision came true when the Danville School District served burgers from their own FFA-raised beef as part of the Arkansas Farm to School Program.
“The students in the cafeteria that first day enjoyed the higher quality beef patties,” said Gary Gray, Danville FFA Advisor. “Ms. Tramel said all comments from students were positive and her numbers of served students are up every time she serves ‘Littlejohn Burgers.’”
A two-year project in the making, the Danville school district is the first public school in the state of Arkansas to bring beef to the Farm to School program, a government program that encourages schools to buy local food.
Gray first attended a Farm to School program meeting the summer of 2015.
“The focus was fruits and veggies, how local farmers could get grants for equipment, and how the school can purchase,” Gray said. “At the end of the meeting, I asked, ‘what about selling beef to the schools?’ No one could answer. No one knew what the requirements were, or where to find them.”
At that time, Gray was getting some pressure to build a big garden on the FFA chapter’s 80-acre farm so that the school district could participate in the Farm to School program.
However, the George and Irene Cowger FFA Farm was already home to a successful student-run cow/calf operation. Used to teach A.I. and palpation for pregnancy, the farm provides student access to ultrasound equipment for measuring ribeye area, intramuscular fat, and back fat thickness, as well as sex determination of beef fetuses. In fact, all the cows on the farm are bred by students in the animal science lab.
“I always replied, ‘we are in the cow business already, let’s do school Farm to School and sell BEEF!’” Gray said.
While Gray was trying to look into the specifics of how to get beef into the Farm to School program, the Danville FFA chapter decided to keep a calf after weaning and start him on a little feed with plenty of pasture … just in case the cafeteria deal worked out. The particular calf was the result of a student AI lab — born on the farm, castrated by students, weaned, and then fed out on the school farm.
“For FFA members, the process was just a further step in our cow/calf operation,” Gray said. “We talk about finishing calves in class, and livestock exhibitors understand the process, but this allowed the whole chapter to be involved in finishing out a calf.”
Food service director Marcia Tramel was able to provide information about how to get Arkansas State Department of Education to approve the purchase and use of school-raised beef. For the FFA chapter’s purposes, the requirements were: the meat must be processed in a plant with a USDA inspector in the plant; must be no less than 80% lean; and each package must be labeled with USDA inspection, 100% beef, and the lean/fat percentages.
The Danville FFA’s processor went above and beyond the requirements with additional testing of random samples.
And the Danville FFA steer made the specs. With a live weight of 1,305 pounds and a carcass weight of 765 pounds, the steer’s lean-to fat ratio was 91% lean, 9% fat.
The chapter charged market price for a live heavy steer, based on USDA information for the day they delivered to the processor. That money went right back into the Danville FFA activity fund to be used for various functions and operation of the farm.
While this first calf was a market test for the chapter, the Danville FFA now has calves “on deck” to go toward finishing and processing.
“We proved that the market is there, and we intend to supply all the hamburger meat for the school,” Gray said. “We are adjusting our program to be able to deliver finished calves at different times throughout the year, so that the cafeteria doesn’t have a storage issue. We want to make it an easy, seamless transition to using FFA beef.”
And with Thursday’s being hamburger day at school, the Danville FFA students will be able to get a weekly taste of their fellow students’ hard work and accomplishment.
“I was raised on the philosophy that ‘if you can’t do things yourself, you are trouble,’” Gray said. “That philosophy has always been the underlying motivation for my being an ag teacher and FFA advisor. Kids today are losing touch with the food and fiber system, and the idea of being able to do things yourself. In ag education, we have the chance to teach kids to actually do things, fix things, raise animals, build things, own businesses, etc. This was just another project to teach kids another way to be more self-sufficient.”