Young Herry McClure and his dad, Jon, pulled their livestock trailer into the parking lot of the Iowa State University Meat Lab in early July. They delivered the first cattle for the Beef Up Iowa program. One was a steer that 10-year-old Herry raised as a 4-H project, the other two steers were from a neighbor. Cattle donated to Beef Up Iowa are processed at the lab by ISU students and staff, and the beef is donated to food banks across the state.
Beef Up Iowa is a new program created to connect beef producers with food insecure Iowans. The program began July 1, and the initial cattle are being sourced from Iowa 4-H and FFA members. Processing will continue through the summer or as long as funds remain. The beef is being distributed through the Iowa Food Bank Association. Some of the cattle are donated by 4-H and FFA members and other producers, and some cattle are purchased to ensure enough supply to keep the program going.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a spotlight on the importance of agriculture and how the ag community steps up to meet challenges and help feed people,” says Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig. “This Beef Up Iowa program is making a special effort by feeding Iowans in need.”
Agriculture gives back
People in agriculture are interested in giving back, despite the challenges they are experiencing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. “These are challenging times for agriculture, for farmers and for all Iowans,” Naig says. “Farmers are dealing with financial difficulties, and yet they are interested in trying to help. I’m proud of the way the ag community is stepping up to help those in need.”
Naig was on hand at the ISU Meat Lab to greet the McClures when Herry donated his steer. Normally 4-H and FFA members would have sold their livestock at county fair auctions. Herry planned to participate in the 4-H cattle show at the Dallas County Fair, but those plans were canceled due to COVID-19. Jon McClure commented how donating a steer reduces some of the tears often involved when young 4-H’ers sell their first calves.
The Beef Up Iowa program is a partnership of the Iowa Department of Agriculture, Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, Iowa Beef Industry Council, Iowa Cattlemen’s Foundation, Iowa Food Bank Association and Iowa State University. It is an initiative of the Feeding Iowans Task Force, led by Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg.
Iowa food banks and food pantries have seen increased demand due to the pandemic, while the normal meat processing options for producers have decreased. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has allocated funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act for the state to help cover processing costs for the Beef Up Iowa program. However, costs are associated with purchasing cattle, and the storage, transportation and delivery of the beef to food banks and pantries.
How to get involved
“The program is fortunate to have some funding through the CARES Act to help offset expected costs,” says Rex Hoppes, executive director of the Iowa Beef Industry Council. “But a majority of the funding to help pay for purchasing the cattle comes from contributions and donations. Some local county fair groups and businesses are pooling their contributions to purchase the beef animals that would normally be auctioned at the county fair. Feeding Iowans in need, promoting the importance of the Iowa beef industry and supporting future beef producers is what this giving program can accomplish during these uncertain times.”
Individuals can also contribute money. To donate funds to help support the Beef Up Iowa program, visit the Iowa Cattlemen’s Foundation at donorbox.org/beefupiowa.
“Lots of folks are digging in to help,” Hoppes says. “We’re getting strong support from the ISU Meats Lab to make this a successful program.”
ISU’s USDA-inspected meat lab can process 10 to 12 animals a day. “Iowa State is a land-grant university that serves the state of Iowa,” says Dan Thomson, chair of the animal science department in the College of Agriculture. “It’s a great service that Iowa State can work with the community to serve Iowans in need. We have faculty, staff and students involved in this program. A program like Beef Up Iowa not only allows us to serve our neighbors, it also offers hands-on learning for students — future meat scientists who may be inspired to open their own processing facilities in the future.”
The Beef Up Iowa program follows the successful launch of the state’s Pass the Pork initiative, launched in April to supply Iowa food banks with pork donated by Iowa hog farmers and processed at small-town meat lockers.
The state has also launched a Pack the Pantry program offering grants up to $10,000 to help food pantries increase their refrigeration capacity, so they can offer more locally grown, perishable foods including meat and vegetables.
“More refrigeration at food pantries means more Iowa eggs, dairy, produce and meat can get on plates where it’s needed,” Naig says.
Opportunity for students
Cattle for the Beef Up Iowa program are processed at Iowa State University’s Meat Lab, on campus in Ames. Students and staff employed in the lab produce the 1-pound chubs of hamburger that are sent to food pantries. The food pantries accept the beef and give out 5 pounds of the beef at a time.
“We want students involved,” says Dan Thomson, chair of the animal science department in the ISU College of Ag. “It’s a hands-on learning experience, to help prepare them for a career. Not only will they go to work for the big meatpackers, but they can go back home and help keep Main Street open. We’re going to see more local lockers open up in small towns.”
Upon entering the ISU Meat Lab, students and staff follow a “strict protocol” for health and safety. “We follow USDA guidelines and check people’s temperature; we wear face masks; we wash hands coming in; we wash hands going out; and if someone is sick, they stay home,” Thomson says.
Though partnering with the university is not uncommon, this partnership is a first for the Iowa Department of Agriculture. “We have many partnerships with Iowa State,” says Iowa Secretary of Ag Mike Naig. “We’re fortunate to have an Iowa State. We have a land-grant institution that understands and sees the value of connecting. In this case with the meat lab, this is the first time we’ve partnered.”