Katie Wheeler is a Service Member in Kalispell.

Currently, there’s a movement in Montana to connect K-12 schools with local cattle ranchers. Our FoodCorps state fellow, Lea Howe, is helping lead the charge. The basic idea is that we live in Montana, a state known for it’s beef, so why not serve local beef in cafeterias across the state? In the simplest terms, it makes sense to support local ranchers and get healthier beef into the stomachs of our students.

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Food Service Director, Jennifer Montague, visits Lower Valley Processing Facility.

Here at School District #5 in Kalispell, we’re approaching the one-year anniversary of serving local beef burgers in our cafeterias. We couldn’t be happier. In the fall of 2011, we looked into making the switch to local beef but couldn’t find a meat processor with the necessary equipment. Last March, our Food Service Director, Jennifer Montague, asked that I again look into the possibility of switching to local beef.

The first call I made was to Lower Valley Processing, a family owned and state inspected facility located less than ten miles away. I spoke with Jason Mahlen who informed me that they had just purchased a new machine that had an attachment to form beef patties at our desired size. With this simple change we could now buy Montana beef at our schools.

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Katie poses by the patty machine!

Jason, Jenny, and I exchanged a handful of emails and phone calls and by the end of the next day, we had a box of fresh local beef patties scheduled for delivery the following week!  One year later and we are now purchasing 20 cases per week for our 11 schools.

One of the best parts of this story is that no monetary compromises were made by either party involved. Lower Valley didn’t have to lower their price tag in order to hit our budget, and we didn’t have to sacrifice money from a different part of our budget in order to make the change viable. What did change is that we now serve exclusively Montana beef burgers that are never frozen. In fact, we’re saving $.01 per patty by purchasing this product locally, which equates to approximately $765 of savings per school year. With this deal, District #5 is putting upwards of $37,000 in the local economy each year!

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The scrumptious final product: a local beef burger.

The hurdles to source local food are many but FoodCorps is working everyday to build infrastructure and relationships to get this food into our schools. Beef in Kalispell schools is a great example of our success. If we continue to put in the hard work, we’ll keep money in our local economy and produce a healthy generation of young eaters.