Idaho’s needy counting on beef, ranchers

Mar 31, 2011

In this modern age where most everything seems to be bought and sold, good old-fashioned neighboring remains one of the cornerstones of ranching culture. This spring, thousands of brandings will be attended by neighboring ranchers and cowboys who will gladly put in a hard day’s work for no more pay than a hamburger and a cold drink. Many a rancher has fallen ill or been injured only to have the pleasure of learning that their calves have been checked, or perhaps that their hay’s been put up, and a home-cooked meal has been delivered to their door. Neighboring is part of the ranching culture. It’s in our DNA.

In Idaho, creative industry partners have collaborated to extend their neighboring ways to benefit people who need assistance most—those who don’t have enough money to buy food. The Beef Counts program is the brainchild of Agri Beef Co. and the Idaho Food Bank who, together with the Idaho Cattlemen, Idaho Cattlewomen, and the Idaho Beef Council have developed an innovative system for delivering donations of protein-packed, nutritious beef directly to people who are in need.

"What it means to us is a sustainable, predictable supply of beef into our network," explains Karen Vauk, President and CEO of the Idaho Food Bank. "Having that availability of protein makes a huge difference, especially for people who are food-insecure."

According to Vauk, as many as 237,000 people in Idaho are not able to buy sufficient food to maintain an active, healthy lifestyle.

The Beef Counts program has helped resolve a longstanding quandary with providing food to Idaho’s hungry—delivering adequate amounts of protein, which is particularly necessary for growing children. Among the several hundred affiliated church charities, food pantries, and other food distribution points that the Idaho Food Bank supplies, meat has long been the item which is least available and most commonly requested. With the USDA guidelines recommending 6 ounces of protein per person per day for a healthy diet, the Idaho Food Bank has struggled to provide a consistent supply of protein to the 110,000 children, families and senior citizens who are served daily through The Idaho Food Bank’s network.

At the same time, ranchers have offered cattle as donations, but because the Food Bank was ill equipped to manage processing the beef, which must be USDA inspected, they were unable to take advantage of rancher’s generosity.

Thus the challenge: How could a donation on the hoof be converted into dinners for Idaho’s hungry?

Enter Agri Beef, an Idaho/Washington-based company which owns ranches, feedlots, a packing plant, and produces several high-quality beef brands, including Snake River Farms American Wagyu Beef, Double R Ranch Northwest Beef, and St. Helens Beef. For six years, Agri Beef had been donating approximately $50,000 annually to the Idaho Food Bank in beef, cash, and services. They were looking for a way to stretch their donations further. The Food Bank, meanwhile, needed more beef donations, but wasn’t equipped to accept live animals.

Together with the Idaho Cattlemen, Cattlewomen, and the Beef Council, the partners hammered out an ingenious solution: to accept the revenue from live animal donations sold at auction and place these funds into an account for the Food Bank.

It’s essentially a way of converting the live animals into cash. Agri Beef then adds 50 percent to all dollar proceeds from the sale of donated cattle, spending up to $50,000 a year in matching. The Food Bank then uses these funds exclusively to purchase USDA-inspected beef from Agri Beef, at cost. Agri Beef also donates custom family packaging to fit the Food Bank’s needs as well as transportation of the product. The auction yards act as agents for the Food Bank, collecting and transferring the funds.

Vauk pointed out that cattle buyers have also pitched in by bidding up the donated animals.

"Sometimes out of their generosity, they would auction off an animal, [and] whoever purchased that animal would then donate it back, and they would auction it again," said Vauk. "That happened in one example where they auctioned the same animal four times."

Even feedlot owners are able to contribute added weight to Beef Counts animals that are donated at the feedlot.

Officially kicked off in April 2010, by all accounts, the Beef Counts program has been a huge success. Among other benefits, converting donated cattle into a cash fund to purchase beef allows the Food Bank to buy product only as it is needed, and not simply when a rancher brings them a steer.

"That gives us the opportunity to place those orders when they’re most needed," explains Vauk. "That’s the predictability and sustainability that’s so important to us."

"It is so generous, and it’s been just fun to put together from the very beginning. …[E]verybody that’s been involved has been very positive, supportive, wanting to do this, and happy to be involved."

The Cattlewomen have furthered the effort by creating recipes in both English and Spanish so that recipients can best take advantage of the donated beef.

"It makes a big difference for families," said Vauk.

Rick Stott, executive vice president of Agri Beef, feels that the program has succeeded in meeting its goals.

"Bottom line, it’s a win all the way around," says Stott. "It’s great for the generosity of the cattlemen [and] it makes the $50,000 that we’ve contributed … go even farther."

Over the past year, Stott estimates that the program has supplied over 200,000 meals to Idaho’s needy.

Traci O’Donnell, executive director of the Idaho Beef Council, is another one of the key minds behind the Beef Counts program. She explained how people in the livestock industry have a unique motivation to step in and help Idaho’s needy. As food producers, they have the ability to directly address hunger and make an immediate impact.

O’Donnell elaborated, "This is a tragedy when you think not only is Idaho an agriculturally rich state, but also is one of the leading beef production states, that we have people here in our own backyards that are going to bed hungry tonight. We want to do something about it and we want to make a difference."

Part of the producers’ outreach has been to help distribute the beef to the needy, as well as donate it. The Food Bank operates "mobile pantries" which visit areas with no food distribution point, and Beef Counts partners often take part in passing out beef. For Stott, it’s been a moving experience.

"The cattlemen are encouraged to be there to help pass out the food to their neighbors and friends, and folks that are in need," says Stott. "Clearly in this economy, there’s a lot of pain out there right now, financial suffering. I’ve been at several of these, and you know, you look up, and one time you’ll see a mother with children … clearly in economic hardship, and then you look up, and it could be your neighbor going through really tough times. Maybe they just lost their house, or a job, and don’t really have a way to put food on their table. It’s pretty heart-wrenching, and we’re just pleased to be part of this program, and glad to see that this money is being extended and that this money is growing."

Beef Counts is not only growing in Idaho, it’s expanding across the Northwest. Currently, Agri Beef has partnered with the Second Harvest food bank in Washington and Washington cattle industry organizations to create a Washington Beef Counts program. Colorado is apparently looking into forming a similar program. Other states may soon follow suit.

And they should. Fighting hunger with beef is a way of staying true to our principles and our culture. Call it good old-fashioned neighboring.

"Most importantly," reflects O’Donnell, "we’re meeting the needs of our communities and our neighbors, and [showing] that we care, and we want to make a difference. If you really look at the foundation of our industry, that’s what we’re all about. Caring for one another, and caring for our neighbors, especially in times of need." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent