Locally-raised beef will soon be stocking the shelves of local food pantries due to another new local food initiative of Piedmont Environmental Council and northernmost Culpeper County’s Lakota Ranch.
The pilot program is intended to help the hungry and farmers, both suffering during COVID-19.
Farm manager Jeremy Engh on the morning of July 1 will deliver the first 50-pounds of ground beef from the ranch to Fauquier Community Food Bank in Warrenton. It, like other food banks, has experienced ground beef shortages during the pandemic, according to a PEC news release.
The meat effort follows recent success of a similar PEC dairy initiative that raised money to purchase milk from local dairy farmers for local food pantries. It helped farmers who lost a significant market as well as food insecure populations, which has drastically increased since schools closed March 13.
As the dairy program grew to 19 food banks in eight counties, PEC Buy Fresh Local Coordinator Matt Coyle, formerly of Lakota Ranch, learned food pantries needed packs of versatile ground beef, too. The farm had previously subsidized beef for a Madison County food pantry and inquired with PEC if they might help fill a need, he said.
“The answer was a resounding yes,” Coyle said.
A community-supported nonprofit, PEC is now testing a similar approach in seeking philanthropy to provide 200 pounds of ground beef, subsidized by Lakota Ranch, to the food bank in Fauquier.
“If all goes well, with more than 60 beef farmers in our nine-county region, our goal is to match as many farmers as are interested with their nearest local food pantry, and provide about 400-450 pounds of meat per month to each pantry,” including in Culpeper, Coyle said.
Fauquier Community Food Pantry Director Sharon Ames told PEC the pandemic has significantly increased the need for provisions, and families are finding more time to cook healthy meals at home.
“Everyone enjoys ground beef, from children to senior citizens, and our clients are going to be so happy to be able to get quality ground beef they can use to stretch their meals further,” she said, expressing thanks to program partners.
The goal is to expand the program to food pantries and closets in Albemarle, Clarke, Culpeper, Fauquier, Greene, Loudoun, Madison, Orange and Rappahannock counties.
Another primary purpose is to boost local beef producers being impacted by the national shutdown of meat processing plants due to COVID-19 outbreaks. This has caused heavy demand to smaller processors, making it difficult for beef farmers to secure a spot on the schedule for processing, according to PEC.
“In addition, while beef farmers can easily sell prime cut steaks, they need a viable outlet for the rest of the meat, and this initiative will provide that,” according to the release.
PEC President Chris Miller is thrilled with the success of the dairy initiative and is hopeful the beef initiative will be equally effective. He is mindful the programs treat symptoms of a larger problem.
“COVID-19 has exposed severe vulnerabilities and flaws in our local food supply systems. We can no longer rely on a few globally scaled producers to meet the needs of our local communities,” Miller said. “We see a strange phenomenon where the beef that is produced in this region is not directly available to meet local needs because of a shortage of local manufacturing and distribution. We produce tens of thousands of live animals, but are struggling to provide the equivalent of one animal a week to help those most in need in our communities. We need to solve that breakdown going forward.”
A few weeks ago, PEC and American Farmland Trust applied for a USDA Local Food Promotion grant for a feasibility study to locate an animal processing facility in the Piedmont for processing, dry-aging, storing and packaging.
“A local plant would reduce costs for farmers who now have to ship animals across the state and even across state lines for processing, create an efficient mechanism for a multitude of local farmers to dry age and store processed meat, and it would make our local communities less depending on a national food supply chain that can’t easily and quickly adapt to changing demands and conditions, like a pandemic,” Miller said.
Lakota Ranch cows are grass-fed on rotating fields and free of antiobiotics. The herd grazing on the Culpeper farm started in 1954 on the Engh family farm. It’s the largest herd of Devon cows in the U.S. and Lakota Ranch is among the top breeders of the type of cattle first brought to America by the English nearly 400 years ago.