A year and a half into its existence, Durango School District 9-R’s food distribution center is thriving and has allowed the district to expand its offerings. The newest addition to school menus is local beef.
The school district purchased four cows from rancher Walter Jones in Mancos and began serving them in December after having them slaughtered at Sunnyside Farms, said Julie Popp, spokeswoman for the school district. The beef will last the schools for half a year.
The cows were grass-fed and grass-finished, she said.
“A lot of times, before cows go to slaughter, they take them off the grass ... and put them on grain or corn or something like that to fatten them up and prepare them for the slaughter,” she said. “Grass-finished, they have the highest nutrition value all the way up until the end of their life.”
The distribution center aggregates fruits, vegetables and meat from local farms for 9-R and other nearby school districts.
“We provide the infrastructure that some of the smaller school districts do not have,” said Krista Garand, the district’s coordinator of student nutrition.
Each district orders food directly from the farmer and is invoiced individually, she said. The distribution center, located at Durango High School, holds the food for the other districts. Providing a single pick-up and drop-off point, however, is helpful for the other districts.
“That’s often what smaller school districts struggle with and why they can’t do farm-to-school,” Popp said.
The majority of the food 9-R brings in through its farm-to-school program comes from La Plata and Montezuma counties but also as far away as Delta, Garand said. The steadiest suppliers include Fields to Plate Produce and Adobe House Farms of Durango, Mancos’ Mountain Roots and Mattics Orchards in Olathe.
Garand said the distribution center allows 9-R to buy larger quantities of food, handle them more safely and manage the food better, resulting in less food waste.
In addition to bringing in foods, the facility keeps certain foods separate, Popp said. For instance, it allows 9-R to run a gluten-free bakery.
“If children come in with a doctor’s note saying that they have celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder that prevents a person from digesting gluten), then all their food will be produced in that cafeteria and delivered to the school every day,” she said.
The facility has also improved District 9-R’s bottom line, Popp said.
“For a while there, we were paying $300,000 above and beyond our reimbursement from the state to maintain our farm-to-school program,” she said. “Participation rates have gone up ... and we’ve brought in other elements, so our extra costs have gone down. We’re probably only pumping in $120,000 extra now.”