School Lunch Goes Local

School lunches sometimes get a bad reputation. Pizza, frozen foods, and canned vegetables might be the only options in a typical school cafeteria, and this was especially true when farmer Steve Whitmire was in school.

“I remember our lunches they were not that good. They were high fat, high carbohydrate, and sugary desserts,” he says. “Now what I’m seeing is really healthy choices.”

Steve Whitmire is a driving force behind this shift toward healthy school lunches. He’s a farmer and owner of Brasstown Beef, a family farm in Brasstown, North Carolina that offers beef free of antibiotics or added hormones. Recently, his local beef has been showing up on school lunch trays throughout the region.

Greenville County Schools in South Carolina now use Brasstown Beef in meatloaf, shepherd’s pie, pasta sauces, and several other meals. Joe Urban, director of food and nutrition services at Greenville County Schools in South Carolina, was instrumental in bringing Brasstown Beef to the county’s cafeterias.

“We’re on a mission here in Greenville to completely reinvent school food service, and part of that is partnering with as many local growers as we possibly can. It’s our obligation here in Greenville to provide our kids the highest quality food possible, and when we’re able to know our farmer and know where our food comes from, we have a better idea of what we’re putting in our kids’ mouths,” Urban says.

Urban and his team visited the farm before they committed to serving Brasstown Beef in the school’s cafeterias. “We spent the day there and we’ve learned how he raised his cattle and learned a lot about the people that work for him and their philosophy of taking care of his animals and how that how that care turned into a greater quality beef for the customers. So that trip to Brasstown Beef was part of the selling point to us to decide that this is a good partnership for us,” he says.

The students get to know their farmers, too. Steve Whitmire has visited several schools that serve his beef, including Greenville and Buncombe County Schools. He says it’s fun to stand in the cafeteria line with the kids. His big black rancher hat towers over their heads as he tells them about his farm. He says the students are enthusiastic about the new addition to their school menus.

“If it’s a return visit and they’ve been eating our meat, then what I hear is ‘Wow it’s so much better than it used to be.’ So I get a lot of positive response from interactions with the with the kids. They not only appreciate knowing the person that’s responsible for the quality and the the healthiness of what they’re eating, but their taste buds are literally telling them wow, this is good,” Whitmire says.

It’s a balancing act to make these new additions fit into the school budget. Volume helps—Greenville has 101 schools in its district, so they have more purchasing power than smaller schools. This helps them make local food a priority.

“So a big part of that is making sure that we are able to source high quality products that fit within our budget. So Steve’s is a super premium product for sure, but were able to utilize his beef in our recipes in a way that that fits right within the school budget,” Urban says.

Farmer Steve Whitmire says these large-scale local partnerships help support multigenerational farms like Brasstown Beef, which in turn help preserve farmland in Western North Carolina.

“If you want to keep the land, first of all, you have to be financially sustainable. I mean it’s plain and simple. You have to have more income than you have expenses, and you have to be able to figure out how to make a living from it. So the relationship with the schools helps underpin that for a lot of us and lets us do what we really enjoy doing. It’s a win-win,” he says.

Brasstown Beef is currently served in Greenville County Schools and some Buncombe County Schools, with more partnerships in progress. Learn about more farm to school programs at ASAP’s Growing Minds website:

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