by Tamara Scully
Those who wish to purchase food grown locally are most familiar with produce. Fruit and vegetables sold by the roadside are a hallmark of locally grown food. Produce is the low-hanging fruit of local food consumption. Even so, luring customers away from supermarket purchases of imported or well-traveled produce, which is always in season, isn’t easy.
It’s even more challenging to sell local meat. Meats are higher priced food items, and it’s been a few generations since ordering up your freezer meat from the local farmer – or even the local butcher – has been standard practice. Profitably selling large quantities of meat to foodservice providers can seem almost impossible.
What’s a farmer to do?
Farm to Institution New England and New England Farm and Sea to Campus Network has addressed these issues. Rebecca Thistlethwaite, director of the Niche Meat Processing Assistance Network (NMPAN); Mike Webster, director of dining services at the Hotchkiss School; and Jamie Picardy, University of Southern Maine Food Studies Program, all spoke on the issue.
“As Americans, we have access to more meat than most other countries,” Picardy said. “We Americans are eating more than one-half pound of meat per person per day.”
That adds up to a lot of meat, but not a lot of those purchases come directly from local farms. The increasing demand for niche or differentiated meat includes those making claims regarding animal welfare, animal diet or environmental impact. Grass-fed beef purchases have doubled each year since 2012, Picardy said, and now make up about 1% of all beef purchased in the U.S. Locally grown meat is also included in this category.
For farmers seeking a direct connection to local eaters, the growing desire for differentiated meats in general, and local meat in particular, is a good thing.
NMPAN is based at Oregon State University. Thistlethwaite stated the challenge for many farmers is finding a way to get food into larger marketplaces, not simply selling via CSAs or farmers markets.
But there are supply chain challenges. Foodservice providers often want items to come as close to prepared as possible. Each processing step beyond a raw food item adds expense.
But it’s not all bad news. Foodservice providers pay premiums for food as it becomes more processed. Thistlethwaite gave the example of pre-formed meat patties used in many school districts. The market for individual quick frozen meats (IQF) such as these is very large, she said, and does present some opportunity for local farmers.
There are efforts from some groups, such as the Northwest Food Buyers Alliance, to work with foodservice providers on “how to menu whole animals” and create meals from all of the parts of the animal, not only the in-demand cuts of meat, she said.
Others, such as the Montana Beef to School Program, have a self-sustaining working model, driven by meat processors and school districts, where products such as meatballs and beef crumble have been developed collaboratively, to make local meat a reality in schools and keep things profitable and affordable for farmers, processors and school districts.
Thistlethwaite outlined some best practices farmers and processors can use to make local meat to institution work. Utilizing cull animals to lower cost, purchasing 4-H animals directly at auction, retaining high-end cuts to sell while utilizing less expensive cuts for school distribution and offering cold storage for large-scale purchases are some ideas. Paying farmers to raise animals, and contracting directly with a slaughterhouse for processing, is another way foodservice providers can get local meat on their menus more affordably.
School meat planning for the future
“My job is not only to feed our students, but teach them a little bit about their food and the food system,” Webster said.
Hotchkiss School went from less than 20% local food use in 2010 to more than 60% today. This change came about primarily by purchasing all of their meat from New England farmers. Direct to producer purchases of whole animals has made that possible. They also made changes in winter produce purchasing and grains to increase the amount of local food served. The change has been financially net-neutral.
“We’re redirecting about $800,000 and putting new money into our local economies. We’ve forecast that that’s going to have a multiplier effect for us – about $1.9 million,” Webster said of the Whole Animals for the Whole Region Project. They are now bringing local meat to the menu “in a way that is impactful to a large school.”
The program contracts with farmers to raise the animals and adhere to animal welfare and environmental and quality standards the schools wish to uphold. The farmers are paid by the slaughterhouse at the hanging weight price, and the schools pay the slaughterhouse for processing. Delivery is via the slaughterhouse or a third party vendor.
“The idea is that we are redirecting our existing dollars within a food budget away from big ag and redirecting that money into local farm economies,” Webster said. “It gives us some good opportunities to support these farmers in ways that they don’t generally get from a farmers market.”
Challenges for foodservice purchasing whole animals include storage. But after two years, the Hotchkiss School was able to save enough money via whole animal purchases that they built freezer space to accommodate the meat. Offsite meat lockers are another way to manage the storage.
Other challenges include aligning the school’s needs with the animal life cycle. Learning how to cook local meat, and use all parts and cuts, involves culinary education of the staff.
“We’re trying something new and engaging our culinary teams to think of food differently,” Webster said. Less desirable cuts are sometimes used in innovative ways for special event dinners. They use the livers and backfat for liverwurst, and utilize the heads and other odd parts for stocks and broths. Kidneys are reserved for dog owners, who value them for dog food.
For foodservice where whole meat purchasing simply isn’t an option, buying direct from the farmer is still a realistic possibility. There are farmers that sell meat directly to wholesale buyers, and there are local food distributors that can help with sourcing not only for meat, but for an array of local foods, Webster said.
“While there are logistical challenges, I believe that there are enough working models out there that we can draw knowledge from, and we can make it happen,” Thistlethwaite said of local meat to institution marketing.