A month ago, we detailed Colorado Springs School District 11's struggle to keep its much-lauded Good Food Project alive in the face of underfunded government mandates for free and reduced-cost meals. When a milk-price increase pinched D-11's budget, director of food and nutrition services Rick Hughes felt compelled to cancel his seven-year standing contract with Ranch Foods Direct for local, antibiotic- and hormone-free ground beef.
Community response in recent weeks has inspired D-11 to launch a Bring Back Local Beef campaign on its website, where Hughes has also posted certification letters for the new beef he's using — pointing out that though it fails to support our local community and match RFD's more sustainable methods, at least it contains no "pink slime" and is from the U.S. To date, that campaign has raised only $590, but "every penny will go toward purchases of local ground beef" via Ranch Foods, he assures.
That won't be enough to replace new, pre-cooked commercial patties — which, it should be noted, have generated a 50 percent boost in burger sales. (The kids apparently like their thicker style, Hughes says.) But it should be enough for some taco or spaghetti specials in the coming days.
So that's the end of the burger battle, right? Not likely.
Ranch Foods founder Mike Callicrate has continued to voice his ire, and not just because 590 bones doesn't touch the $1.5 million he projects losing in 2015 due to this and other canceled school contracts. He feels D-11, via its purchases, is now complicit in poor conditions for animals, exploitation of workers, rural decline and all of Big Ag's ills. And on a larger scale, he feels it's time "to stand up and fight for our local food system."
There is some momentum for such a thing: On Tuesday, after press time, City Council was expected to vote on member Jill Gaebler's proposal to establish a Food Policy Advisory Board. As envisioned, it would follow the lead of 20-plus Colorado communities in helping government promote more sustainable food systems.
But such a body would have limited power, and would be unlikely to break a stalemate like the one in D-11.
Email exchanges last week were tense between D-11 and RFD. Ever the industry watchdog, Callicrate dismisses certification letters, noting that even if D-11's beef is free of pink slime (a food additive exposed to ammonia gas or citric acid), a company can undercut his prices by selling pink-slimed beef elsewhere. He also insists that country-of-origin can be faked by citing a last location of processing, and that pre-cooked patties are often the end-line of "pathogen positive" meat from the likes of "worn-out dairy cows" and imported animals.
Via email, RFD asked Hughes for price information on D-11's new commercial beef, and samples for testing; Hughes refused, and at one point, clearly frustrated, he exited the conversation entirely.
Today, though, Hughes says the emails exhibited a "healthy discourse," and confirms that he and Callicrate have since talked via phone to mend the tenuous string between their two tin cans. Meanwhile, Callicrate says he doesn't blame Hughes for the dissolution of their contract.
"Not everyone has the courage, inclination and wherewithal to fall on their damn sword — not everyone's willing to be a martyr," he says. "We have real-world car payments and mortgages. We can't expect Rick to go to war without support."
Wondering about possible next moves, we talked to "renegade lunch lady" and chef Ann Cooper, Boulder Valley School District's director of food services. Via her Food Family Farming Foundation, she's worked directly with Michelle Obama on the national Let's Move! anti-obesity campaign. She also formerly bought RFD meat, calling it "a great product," although she's since moved to Anderson Meat Company and Boulder Natural for hormone- and antibiotic-free products.
The challenge in Boulder is different than in the Springs. Because hers is an affluent community that's very sustainability-minded, she has to appeal to "people who can afford to make lunch, who think it's a badge of honor to make their kids' lunch ... [and] convince them to buy it instead."
But her biggest foe is all too familiar: a squeeze on milk money. As she puts it, "I think we're in a monopoly situation right now. It's unconscionable."
Her strategy for fighting back — because "part of their thing is delivery costs" — is to soon build her own central kitchen, to enable warehousing and self-distributing, which she believes could save the district at least $100,000 annually.
As it happens, Hughes and his D-11 chefs are now pondering the very same thing, condensing their four production facilities into one. His cost savings would return to more local food, he says, adding that it's possible the district could seek a bond or mill levy next year to enable the construction.
As for Callicrate, he says RFD "needs more McCabe's Taverns, or another Drifters or two" to help move his ground beef. The upcoming Colorado Springs Public Market should help a little come summer.
Meanwhile, putting his money where his mouth is regarding community-building, he continues to regularly donate meat and bones to Catholic Charities' Marian House Soup Kitchen — around $6,000 worth a few weeks ago.
Martyrs, methodologies and monopolies aside, at least someone in town's eating the better beef, even if your kids can't.