Maconaquah serves up beef

Maconaquah Middle School cafeteria worker Rebekah Russo McKinley serves tacos with beef from Maconaquah Cattle Company. Photo by Eric Stoff.

BUNKER HILL – More student-raised beef, along with locally raised pork, is coming to the cafeterias at Maconaquah School Corporation.

The Maconaquah Cattle Company has received a $100,000 federal grant that will allow the district to more than double the size of the program and raise more cows, which are eventually butchered and served at the schools’ cafeterias.

The agricultural science program at the middle school received the grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of competitive process in which only 126 projects were selected from around the country.

Grants are distributed through the program to provide training and technical assistance to improve access to local foods in schools.

And the food doesn’t get more local than the Maconaquah Cattle Company.

Since 2016, three cows have lived on a 2-acre pasture located right in the middle of the main campus of the Maconaquah School Corp. Two others live in a field near the schools.

Every day, including weekends and holiday breaks, rain or shine, students enrolled in the “School to Table” class head out to feed the cows, give them medicine and do all the other chores required to keep the cattle healthy and safe.

The culmination of the project came last year when the middle school served up tacos and cheeseburgers made from the first batch of student-raised beef.

Now, thanks to the USDA grant, school officials are working to supply every cafeteria in the school district with fresh, healthy meat raised on the school campus.

Agriculture teacher John Sinnamon, who heads up the program, said the money will pay for five more cows, some of which are breeding stock, bringing the total herd to 10. That will allow the program to begin producing calves in-house, and keep fresh beef on the menu indefinitely.

The grant is also allowing the district to partner with a local swine farmer to buy around 30 wean-to-finish hogs that students will help raise. The animals will eventually be butchered and served on the schools’ lunch menus.

The district is set to use the grant to also purchase new equipment that will make it safer and easier to handle livestock, including a trailer to haul the cattle and a freezer trailer to transport fresh-cut meat back and forth from the district. The money will also pay for a new handling system on the school campus to house, tag and care for the cattle.

Middle School Principal Craig Jernagan said the district received the USDA grant this year after applying for it once before without receiving any money.

“As we built our program over the years, I think it became more appealing to the grant committee to fund us this year,” he said.

The program has been awarded grants in the past from the Indiana State Department of Agriculture and Monsanto Fund, but the USDA grant marks the largest contribution to the agriscience class.

Sinnamon said the fact the district received such a large grant from a federal program is evidence of how far the cattle project has come in the last few years.

“We’ve had recognition for the program before, but to get a grant from the USDA is huge,” he said. “It means we’re being supported at the national level.”

Jernagan said he and Sinnamon have been invited by the USDA to a conference in Louisiana next month to meet with other school leaders who have received a Farm to School grant this year. He said they hope to network with other districts to grow the program even more.

“That will give some exposure nationwide” he said.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said it is programs like the Maconaquah Cattle Company that will inspire the next generation of farmers, and that’s why the district received the grant.

“USDA is proud to help the next generation better understand where its food comes from, while strengthening local economies,” he said in a release.

And, Sinnamon said, by more than doubling the size of the program, more students than ever at Maconaquah will get a hands-on education about agriculture and its role in the local economy.

“We’re really excited when we see what this will do for our program and our kids’ experience in agriculture,” he said. “ … This grant will greatly benefit our school, our ag program, and most importantly, our students.”

The idea for the cattle program started inside the lunch room. Five years ago, the food supervisor for the district approached administrators about the quality of the beef they were serving at the cafeteria.

“The meat comes in these bags filled with gray matter,” Sinnamon said in a previous interview. “It’s not something you would buy for your family to serve at home. She wanted the best food for these kids. So the idea came from, ‘What can we do?’”

That’s a question administrators put to the students, who soon started working on a plan to start producing their own meat. The students set to work installing a fence around the pasture in 2016, when the first cattle moved into their new home on the school grounds.

“This is so beyond what a typical school does, especially for a middle school,” Sinnamon said in a previous interview. “Seriously, think about school projects. How much time is typically spent on a project in school? A week or two? This has been going on for years.”

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, or on Twitter @carsongerber1.

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Carson Gerber is a reporter for the Kokomo Tribune and can be reached at 765-854-6739, or on Twitter @carsongerber1.