By Debbie Kelley • Updated: March 20, 2015 at 8:22 pm
Rising beef prices and new government regulations led to a tough decision for one of the region’s leading advocates for locally sourced food.
Rick Hughes, director of food and nutrition services for Colorado Springs School District 11, last month began looking for another beef supplier.
D-11 – the area’s largest district with nearly 28,400 students – had spent $220,000 per school year on beef from Ranch Direct Foods, Hughes said, as part of district-wide push he started a few years ago to bring healthier foods to school cafeterias. The Colorado Springs meat packing operation sells foods direct from area ranches.
But another price hike tipped the scale.
"Ultimately, it came down to dollars and cents," said Hughes.
This month, the district switched to buying beef from the National Beef and Integrated Foodservice through U.S. Foodservice.
Hughes said the change will save the district $50,000 a year on hamburger patties and bulk ground beef purchases.
Hughes said the quality is similar to Ranch Foods Direct’s well-known Callicrate beef, named after the company’s owner. But unlike Ranch Foods Direct’s products, the new supplier "doesn’t guarantee the meat doesn’t have antibiotics or hormones." It’s also not "grass-finished," meaning the cattle do not graze on pasture land their entire lives.
However, Hughes said the meat is sourced from the Midwest and does not contain "pink slime," an additive that has come under public scrutiny for its unsavory qualities.
D-11 has been a leader in the move to serve healthy, nutritious food in its school cafeterias. Hughes launched "The Good Food Project" in 2009, to promote using food in school meals that’s hormone- and antibiotic-free, fresh and not highly processed, and doesn’t contain artificial preservatives or added sugars and other bad stuff.
"We want to provide healthy, fresh meals, and we’re still doing that," Hughes said regarding the move to another beef vendor. "We’re just not able to support our local community."
Revenue – around $3 for lunch and $2.67 per breakfast – started falling short of covering the costs of food, labor, supplies and overhead, Hughes said, with increased prices on higher-quality beef as well as a new Colorado law to serve free breakfast to all students at schools with large numbers of low-income students.
After reading an article on D-11’s beef conundrum in The Independent, local community activist and retired public health worker Mary Talbott, got motivated to start a fundraising drive.
"I thought, ‘Good grief, this is an incredible project that’s working. They’re feeding kids more fruits and vegetables and whole grains and helping them develop healthy eating habits," she said. "This is a model to use locally sourced food and foster local business development, and we should help out."
About $500 in donations have been raised to date to help D-11 return to buying and serving beef from Ranch Direct Foods.
The company’s owner, Mike Callicrate, said D-11 has been a customer since 2010, and while U.S. cattle prices have "risen dramatically" in the last several years, "school budgets have not kept up."
"Local farm-to-school suppliers that depend on strictly local, domestic sources of cattle are disadvantaged compared to the processors that are importing far cheaper meat from countries like Australia and Uruguay," he said.
Callicrate said his company recently has lost business from other public school districts in Colorado, including Boulder Valley, Greeley, Jefferson County, Denver and Falcon School District 49.
"The overall effect has been dramatic," he said.
Four jobs at his company were lost due to the loss of the D-11 contract, he said, in addition to 12 jobs lost from the other school business.
"It’s not just the dollars lost in ground beef sales to D-11 but also other parts of the animal D-11 doesn’t buy," Callicrate said. "The inability to sell ground beef means that the supply of other cuts have to be reduced – meaning fewer animals processed, which means less activity in the rural community."
Ranch Foods Direct also is promoting the "Bring Back Local Beef" fundraising campaign.
"Rick Hughes and District 11 have been a national leader in providing better food to kids," Callicrate said. "The more emphasis that’s placed on local sourcing of good food, the more multinational industrial food producers will fight back with imports, pink slime-like additives, predatory pricing, political leveraging and restrictive government policies. D-11 needs public support."