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Colo. Schools Introduce Grass-Fed Beef

Photograph by Getty Images

We’ve all heard about “pink slime,” the downright disgusting mix known as lean finely textured beef, mechanically separated and disinfected “food.” Now parents in a small rural Colorado school district can feel better about choosing a school lunch for their kids, because real food is what they are serving.

Beginning two years ago, Crystal River Beef in Carbondale, Colo., which is three hours west of Denver, has been selling local, grass-fed meat to the RE-1 school district – Basalt to Glenwood – this school year.

“We’re excited to show parents that our school children are eating healthy, natural foods from right in our backyard,” said Michelle Hammond, the district’s Food service Director. “We’re out ahead of what we hope will be a national trend.”

The fact that children who purchase school lunches will be ensured nutritious, grass-fed beef in their cafeterias is both an acknowledgement of the need to improve our nation’s school food programs, but it’s also real action behind it.

This step forward began with the Roaring Fork Food Policy Council. They approached the RE-1 school district with the idea of using grass-fed beef and facilitated a meeting between Hammond and local ranchers. Crystal River Beef was able to meet demands for the 17,000 pounds of beef the district needed annually (beef is served two to three times a week on the RE-1 lunch menus), as well as a price that worked for the district’s budget.

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According to the Mayo Clinic some of the benefits of grass-fed beef is lesser total fat, more omega-3 fatty acids, more conjugated linoleic acid (fat that’s thought to reduce heart disease and cancer risks), more antioxidant vitamins, such as vitamin E.

Crystal River Meats will partner with the local Whole Foods store, to supply high-quality beef for the 2,000 students daily who eat school lunches in this district. The beef going to the schools is exactly the same ground beef being sold at Whole Foods. CRM and Whole Foods forecast the usage and hold extra beef back at the plant, redirecting it directly to the schools. This smart production is an example of how modern logistical efficiencies make it possible to save costs, fuel and time. Through this partnership, CRM and Whole Foods are able to offer a significant discount the schools. Ultimately, it makes it feasible to execute a program like this, and is a great example of “new school” local beef production, according to the CRM owners.

That day she had received an email saying there were 150 pounds of assorted potatoes, 20 pounds of green beans and lots of squash ready for cafeterias to be used throughout the district.

“We pride ourselves on the fact that our business is deeply rooted in the local community,” says Tai Jacober of CRM. “This is not only a way for us to focus locally, but also a way to ensure that our children, and the children of our friends and neighbors, are eating well at school.”

This is just one part of district wide change for the district’s 11 lunchrooms. Several years ago Hammond brought in LiveWell Colorado. The LiveWell program provided training for all the food staff in the district on how to prepare homemade foods. The goal was to switch completely from processed to scratch-bake cooking. This is the third year the district has prepared its menu items from scratch. There are no canned fruits and veggies, and there are now salad bars with fresh fruits and vegetables available to students.

They are also utilizing the district's two elementary school gardens and the growing dome at one of its high schools. Hammonds would like to see the schoolyard garden program expand to all schools that can muster the volunteer help to maintain them. That day she had received an email saying there were 150 pounds of assorted potatoes, 20 pounds of green beans and lots of squash ready for cafeterias to be used throughout the district.

A book that has influenced Hammond and her district’s position on fresh food for kids is “Lunch Money,” by Kate Adamick, co-founder of Cook for America. “Kate and this book has really has helped to motivate my staff and myself to finding ways to make (fresh, nutritious school lunches) possible.”

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And while gathering local fresh food for the district is added work for Hammond, she is a strong advocate for healthy food for kids – food that helps empower children in and out of the classroom.

“I can’t stress enough what a passion it is to provide these students the best possible quality we can give them,” she says. “Every student does deserve the best, and whatever I can do to make it happen I am definitely willing to try.”

If a small, rural school district in Colorado can get grass-fed beef on the menu at its local schools, you should be asking, why can’t yours?

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