MEDICINE LODGE, Kan. — A good-faith effort by a pair of Barber County extension agents to add beef to their school’s lunch menu has turned into a mighty blessing for two south-central Kansas communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the past year, Robin Eubank-Callis and Justin Goodno helped pave the way for cattle producers in Barber County to donate live cattle to two local school districts for their lunch programs.
“I had been reading articles about cattle producers in other areas working to put local beef into schools,” said Goodno, the county’s K-State Research and Extension agriculture and natural resources agent. “I thought, ‘why wouldn’t that work here?’ We are in cattle country; we’ve got more cattle in this county than we have people.”
Listen to an interview with Robin Eubank-Callis and Justin Goodno on the podcast, The Extension Files with Randall Kowalik and Jason Hackett
It took several months to put the pieces together, but by December, 2019, Goodno had assembled a program supported by the Barber County Cattlemen’s Association, Barber County Farm Bureau and the local meat locker (Chieftain Brand Meats/Kiowa Locker System).
“The program provided an outlet for local producers to donate an animal to the school, then we would have it processed at the meat locker, and the Cattlemen’s Association paid 10% of the processing fee,” Goodno said.
It reduced the school’s costs for fresh, local beef to anywhere between $1.50 to $2.50 per pound, Goodno said, and provided menu options that he said students were excited about.
“The feedback we have gotten has been just fantastic,” Goodno said. “The kids have increased their participation in school lunch programs and there’s been a reduction in food waste, especially on days that they serve the beef menus.”
Eubank-Callis, the county’s family and consumer sciences agent, provided nutrition education in both districts, USD 254 (North Barber County in Medicine Lodge) and USD 255 (South Barber County in Kiowa).
“Our grade schools consist of more than 50 percent of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches,” Eubank-Callis said. “When you add the high school in, it drops just to 49.2 percent. So nearly 50 percent of our kids are on free or reduced lunch rates.
“That’s just a small snapshot. We know that in Barber County, our childhood poverty rate is at 20 percent, and that’s one of the highest in the state.”
By January, Goodno said more than 5,000 pounds of ground beef and stew meat were split evenly between the two school districts. Cafeteria managers had revamped the lunch menus to incorporate beef into healthy meals. Beef also made the menu at the concession stand during home basketball games.
Then came the month of March.
The program’s early success came to a screeching halt when the state’s schools were shuttered and Kansans were asked to stay-at-home as the pandemic loomed.
“Every one of us had curve balls thrown at us,” Goodno said. “All of a sudden here in extension, we’re working remotely plus we’re doubling down on digital delivery and planning around things we had already scheduled. The schools, our health care system and our city administrators all became very busy.”
Goodno added that thousands of pounds of beef, intended for students’ lunches, was sitting in school freezers, though not for long.
Eubank-Callis said cafeteria managers at schools continued using meat to serve lunch at the schools through the end of the school year. They’ve now geared up to use some of the product in the community’s summer meal program, which offers free meals to any child age 18 and younger. Adults can eat in the summer for a small charge.
Meanwhile, Eubank-Callis has worked with the food banks to help provide nutrition to residents of the county.
“I have an ongoing relationship with both of the food banks in our county,” she said. Working with the Kansas Food Bank, members of two Methodist churches helped to increase the number of box meals provided to county residents from 48 to 90 recently.
“I knew from visiting with people at those food banks that we had a serious food security issue in Barber County,” Eubank-Callis said. “This helped to address that.”
Encouraged by their success, the two extension agents applied for and were awarded a grant from the Kansas Health Foundation – called the Impact and Capacity Grant Initiative due to COVID-19 – to further address food security issues in the county.
“With this grant, we are going to be able to purchase beef and pork from producers in our county, so now we are going to be putting money back into agriculture in our area instead of asking for a donation,” Eubank-Callis said.
The meat products will be processed at the local locker. The pork will come from market pigs raised by Barber County 4-H members, thus helping them cover their expenses for their project.
“I’ve had people ask me, ‘what about when the money runs out,’” Eubank-Callis said, “but our experience shows us that this community is generous and I think the school beef program showed that.”
Goodno said local producers already are asking how they can donate to the school beef program or to local food pantries. One high school senior who graduated in May is pursuing an idea to build a greenhouse to provide fresh produce for the community. And with summer approaching, Eubank-Callis said residents are encouraged to pick free produce – tomatoes, peppers, beans, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, onions and more – from community gardens in Medicine Lodge and Kiowa.
“We expect the longer the economic crisis goes on, the greater need we will have,” she said. “But for the next year, because of what we’ve been able to do here, we will be able to help anybody who is hungry in Barber County.”
Goodno deflects credit, saying it’s just what strong communities do.
“This is what it’s all about…helping people,” he said. “The opportunity to help people is what drew me to extension. It’s a fun ride.”
The Kansas Health Foundation is a philanthropy dedicated to improving the health of Kansans. For more information about the Kansas Health Foundation, visit www.KansasHealth.org.
— Pat Melgares, K-State Research and Extension
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