By Cassandra Bull, Policy Intern
Most people might think of fruits or vegetables when imagining farm to school, but in many communities, local proteins are on the menu too — or could be. The federal government recently announced several policies to support mid-size livestock producers. In late February, the Biden-Harris Administration announced a $59 million investment in independent processors under the Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program. These awards were announced just weeks after the bipartisan Strengthening Local Processing Act of 2023 was introduced in the Senate. Both of these policies are part of an effort to reduce the negative consequences of concentrated power in our food system, which don’t just affect farmers and ranchers. Also in February, a meatpacking company was fined $1.5 million by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division for illegally employing 100 children in eight states and exposing them to hazardous conditions. At first glance, these federal actions may not appear to connect with farm to school. However, supporting decentralized processing facilities for small- and mid-size meat and poultry farmers is actually a vital component to bolster farm to school and promote a more just food system.
Schools are required to offer protein in every school lunch and breakfast, so it makes sense to include local meat and poultry as part of a farm to school program. According to the USDA Farm to School Census, 15% of School Food Authorities (SFAs) purchased local protein during the 2018-2019 school year. An additional 20% of SFAs expressed an intent to purchase these local products in the future. The USDA’s fact sheet on Local Meat in Schools outlines success stories, tips, and benefits when it comes to serving local proteins, which include nutritional benefits for students, defrayed meal costs, and increased market opportunities for local farmers and fishers.
It is clear why local protein is being featured on the menu in cafeterias throughout the country. Perhaps the greatest benefit is that local protein, which often is delivered frozen to schools, has an extended shelf life and can be used throughout the school year. This is particularly useful for schools in northern climates, which have less availability of fresh fruits and vegetables during winter months.
Equally important is that local proteins can allow schools to serve more culturally relevant meals in the cafeteria. For example, salmon in Alaska, many varieties of seafood in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, and buffalo highlighted by the Intertribal Agriculture Council are just some examples of ways local protein can be tailored to local cultural values. In Montana, a state where there are more than twice as many cows as there are people, the Montana Beef to School Project has created extensive resources for schools on how to purchase, process, and serve local beef in the cafeteria.
While there are important benefits to serving local proteins, there are also real barriers for schools to purchasing local protein — one of these barriers arises from the logistics of sourcing local protein. Schools may have a difficult time purchasing local protein, not because of a lack of producers, but because there simply aren’t many businesses open to independent farmers that can process live animals into packaged ingredients. For example, a school food service director may want to purchase grass-fed beef that was raised on a farm eight miles away from their school. If the rancher does not have frozen meat already in stock, they will have to send live cattle to a USDA-inspected processing facility.
Schools, restaurants, and grocery stores are required to purchase meat that has been processed at a facility with a USDA inspector present at all times during livestock slaughter. Ranchers typically try to get on a routine schedule at their closest processing facility (for example, they may make an appointment every six months to process a predetermined number of cows). However, without an appointment made months in advance, a rancher may have to be put on a waiting list just to get an appointment. After this waiting period to process to get an appointment, it is not uncommon for a rancher to travel more than 100 miles, or drive several hours with the live animals in tow, to be processed at the closest certified facility.
These barriers, among others, are just some of the reasons that the federal government has stepped in to support independent, local meat processing. Two recent examples of support include:
- The Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program is a USDA initiative that provides funding for meat and poultry processors to expand their businesses, create jobs, and increase processing capacity. The grant program aims to support rural economies by providing financial assistance for the construction, renovation, or improvement of meat and poultry processing facilities. The funding can be used for equipment purchases, working capital, and other expenses related to expanding the processing capacity of the facility. In February 2023, the USDA announced an investment of $59 million to support the growth and modernization of six small and mid-sized meat and poultry processors in rural areas. This program is a part of the Biden-Harris Administration's action plan for a fairer, more competitive, and more resilient meat and poultry supply chain.
- The Strengthening Local Processing Act of 2023, sponsored by Sen. Thune [R-SD], aims to increase support for small meat and poultry processing plants in the US, in an effort to help farmers and ranchers access local markets and provide consumers with more options for locally-sourced meat. The Act proposes to provide funding for states to develop and implement meat and poultry processing programs, increase the federal cost-sharing of state-inspected meat and poultry programs, and establish a loan guarantee program to help small processors access capital. The Act also aims to improve food safety by providing grants for training and technical assistance to processors, and by allowing small processors to participate in the Cooperative Interstate Shipment program. Overall, the Act seeks to strengthen the local food system and support small-scale producers and processors.
National Farm to School Network partners can get involved in these two initiatives right now. You can read more about the award recipients of the Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program here. If any are in your area, you can contact these recipients to see if there is room for collaboration on how your organization can support school sourcing of local protein. For those looking to support the Strengthening Local Processing Act of 2023, our partner organization, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, has a webpage with boilerplate language for how to promote this bill to your elected officials. Addressing critical livestock and poultry supply chain issues will help bolster resilient food systems and allow our communities, kids, and farmers to win in the years to come.
For more information or questions, contact Karen Spangler, NFSN’s Policy Director, at Karen@farmtoschool.org.