New York City public schools recently served all-local burgers for the first time. Ho-hum news, if this was a restaurant, but a huge accomplishment when you realize half a million burgers were served.
“We’re very excited about this because a mass-produced local burger product didn’t exist for us until now,” says Eric Goldstein, New York Department of Education’s CEO of the school food office.
To get this locally sourced item, NYC SchoolFood worked with the state department of agriculture, who put them in touch with farmers in New York State to create a customized burger made from culled dairy cows. When dairy cows stop giving milk, these older animals are auctioned off and used for meat.
“It connects with a nice firm handshake the upstate farms and the downstate schools,” Goldstein says. “It’s important to our mayor and to our governor, and we played a large part in firming up that handshake.”
The beef from the culled cows was processed, turned into patties by a manufacturer, and cooked, then frozen and distributed to the schools. For food safety reasons, raw meat isn’t cooked in the nearly 2,000 schools in the district.
The burgers—available with cheese or without—are part of New York Thursdays, a program that highlights local products like dairy and seasonal produce. Apples and yogurt are plentiful, but one missing piece in the program had been protein, Goldstein says.
“We don’t grow chickens here, but we do have cows,” he adds. “We want the kids to get excited because it’s a really good burger, but we also want them to make that connection. That’s why we created New York Thursdays. With the burger, close to 70 percent of our menu that day was local.”
Goldstein is currently serving as chairman of the Urban School Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of big school districts, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas and Orange County (Fla.) and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. After the local burger program went so well on its first day, Goldstein shared his findings and best practices with the group.
“We shared what we did with them, and I think it’s certainly an opportunity for places like Chicago that have a lot of dairy farms,” he says.
The burgers cost about 10 cents more per burger than the regular product, but Goldstein says it’s money well spent, and can be offset by the large portfolio of products purchased overall.
“We’re trying it out and starting slow; we wanted to be innovative and bold, but also responsible,” Goldstein says.
The local burgers were first served Sept. 22, and will be served three more times this year, at the end of October, in January and again in the spring. The district is already looking ahead to increase the frequency next year, seeking bids to get more availability.