For the second year in a row, students at Sandy Creek Middle/High School are raising their own beef steers to learn about beef production and provide the cafeteria with hyper-local beef for school meals through the Beef Boosters program. Students can’t get much closer to the source than this: the steers live in pens just behind the school.
Nebraska ranks fourth in beef cow population in the United States: the state has 1.9 million of them. But even in the heart of beef country, says agriculture teacher Krystin Oborny, it’s not a given that students understand the journey beef takes from the land to the lunchroom.
“A lot of kids have questions and don't exactly know where their food is coming from. This is an amazing way for kids to get that hands-on experience of raising a steer. They get to see it from start to finish.”
The Beef Boosters program brings together the school’s Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter, local beef producers, beef-adjacent businesses, and members of the community.
Photo credit: Sandy Creek Schools
Photo: Through the Beef Boosters program at Sandy Creek Middle/High School, students raise their own beef steers to learn about beef production and provide the cafeteria with hyper-local beef for school meals.
This year, the school purchased three steers from local beef producers, splitting the cost with the FFA chapter. Local families donated the feed corn and a local feed cooperative donated the feed processing and delivery fees. The FFA chapter or the school’s booster chapter will foot the bill for processing the animals. Once it’s time to butcher the animals, the school will trailer the animals to a slaughterhouse in the region. Then the slaughterhouse will process the animals and package the meat for the school.
At the start of the school year, students in Oborny’s animal science class studied beef cow anatomy and beef production, including types of feed and financial considerations of a beef cow operation. Before the steers arrived in January, the students themselves decided what kind of feed to use. Once the steers arrived, students were responsible for feeding them (twice a day, at first, to get their digestive systems used to eating corn) and performing other daily tasks.
The program is a great way to “get those scientific minds going,” Oborny says. “Asking questions and being able to see real-life action instead of just reading about it or watching videos about it is really important for these students.”
Last year, three student-raised steers yielded 40 roasts and 130 pounds of ground beef for the school freezers, enough to serve it once—or even twice—a week. Finer cuts, such as filet mignon or T-bone steaks, are sold to community members through live and silent fundraiser auctions, with funds going back to the program.
The beef is popular in the lunchroom. On a typical day, the cafeteria serves about 370 meals to students in kindergarten through twelfth grade; on Beef Boosters days, that number climbs to 400. Sandy Creek also houses a pre-K and elementary school program in the building. Pre-K students account for an additional 80 meals per day.
Favorite menu items include beef and noodles, scratch-made beef enchiladas, several variations on tacos, and Philly cheese steak sandwiches. They sometimes serve a Nebraska classic: chili and cinnamon rolls. Once a month, community Beef Boosters members bring an oversized grill to the school and barbecue burgers for the students.
District food manager Linda Skalka says the nutrition staff puts extra thought into the Beef Boosters meals, aiming for “more of a restaurant experience versus a school lunch experience, so that it feels very special.” She and her team, in fact, mimic entreés they’ve seen in town and claim that their versions “would rival any country restaurant.” For fun, they also make “Golden Oldies,” recipes pulled from cookbooks written in the 1940s and ‘50s. One such recipe—a beef dish with biscuits baked right on top—was an especially big hit. “The kids just think they’ve got it made,” she says.
Eating tasty meals every week is one thing. But the program may also be popular with students because the adults who teach and cook are enthusiastic about it. In addition to the extra creativity that goes into planning and preparing the meals, Skalka says she and her staff promote student-raised beef by wearing aprons emblazoned with Beef Boosters emblems and displaying table signage on the days when they serve it.
Oborny is passionate about teaching. But, as a farm kid who participated in 4-H and the FFA herself, she loves farming and would like to encourage more students to consider it as a career possibility. She hopes the program will inspire some students to stay local and someday become beef producers themselves.