After a pilot year, it appears that the Hay Springs school district and several donors are happy with a newly-implemented Beef to Lunch program, which provides the district with donated, locally sourced beef.

The 2018-19 academic year served as the district’s foray into the program, at the urging of board member Shavona Henry, whose interest was sparked after seeing Beef to Lunch programs start in other schools.

“We have a lot of ranchers around here, and I thought we are a small enough school, with enough community support, that we should be able to do it,” Henry said.

She and Superintendent Russell Lechtenberg set out to learn more about the program at a Nebraska Cattlemen’s association meeting in Kearney, and also visited with administrators in Hemingford and Bridgeport, two area school districts who have tried Beef to Lunch programs.

“The Nebraska Cattlemen support the program, but I’m convinced it’s local support whether they’re Nebraska Cattlemen or not,” Lechtenberg said.

The first steps were to locate a federally-inspected USDA packing house and form committee to begin soliciting donations from area producers. Fellow board member Greg Heiting agreed to co-chair committee with Henry and is also one of the producer-donors for the program.

“I think it’s a real good program,” he said. “Number one we’re educating the students on where the beef is coming from.”

“For a town our size, there is really strong support,” said Jennifer Young, the school’s head cook since October. “I don’t think people understand what a generous donation it is.”

Local ranchers have donated everything from choice market steers to cull cows, and other supporters of the program including Security First Bank and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad have supplied freezers or monetary donations to pay for the beef processing. Still others have provided transportation to and from the locker plant. The district planned to send its seventh and eighth animals to be processed last week – all but one of those have been donated to the district.

Young uses the beef – whether it’s ground beef patties for Burger Thursdays or whole roasts for beef and noodles – two to three times a week. The program has allowed the district to decrease the amount of heat and eat meals in its lunch program, thereby decreasing the students’ intake of sodium and preservatives, she said.

“It’s definitely a healthier meal,” she said. “We do a lot of casseroles and homemade meals.”

When the district was preparing to launch the program, Henry and the others involved believed four donated beef would fill the district’s needs. They’ve surpassed that with the two head taken for processing last week, but should now have enough beef in the freezer to provide meals for the school’s summer program.

The availability of local beef has also increased the daily meal options for students and staff, Young said. With plenty of beef in the freezer, kids always have a choice of the main entrée on the menu or mini nachos or pizza.

In appreciation, the school district hangs banners in its cafeteria with the name of each donor or supporter of its Beef to Lunch program. The list so far includes: Zach Kraenow Cattle Company, Marcy Cattle Company, KDK Meats, BNSF, HoosCow, Security First Bank, Whispering Winds Vineyard, Sheridan Livestock Auction, Sandhills State Bank and Hinn Ranch.

“At this point (donations) exceed $12,000 from area beef producers and patrons and supporters of our school district,” Lechtenberg said. “These people are greatly appreciated, and I would encourage parents and students of the Hay Springs School District to thank these individuals for their support whenever they have the opportunity.”

Anyone interested in donating beef or funds to the Hay Springs Beef to Lunch program can contact Lechtenberg at the school for more information.

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