By SAMANTHA TIPLER

Klamath County School District

Bruce Topham, clad in cowboy hat and suspenders, waved to children in the Stearns Elementary cafeteria. When asked if they liked their lunches, kids gave a thumbs-up. Their lunch that day included a special ingredient.

On April 11, the Klamath County School District sent 4,200 hamburgers to all its schools. The 700 pounds of meat to make those burgers came from Flying T Ranch in Sprague River, where Topham has been raising specialized Salers cattle for more than 40 years.

“This is a cow you could go visit if you want,” is what Rose Underwood, head cook at Stearns, told students to explain the connection between what was on their plate and what is on Topham’s ranch.

He smiled, laughed and answered students’ questions about his ranch and his cattle. He even ate one of the hamburgers for lunch.

“They’ll find out hamburger comes from a cow instead of a store,” Topham said.

Bringing Flying T beef to school lunches was a pilot project for the Farm to School program. Klamath County School District, Flying T and Oregon State University’s Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center worked together to make it happen.

“If we can show the kids where the food comes from, or meet the person who produces that food, it closes the loop,” said Stacy Todd, KBREC nutrition education program assistant. “To meet the person who made it, that’s cool.”

“It just creates that connectedness,” said Patty Case, KBREC family and community health program manager. “We’re serving our kids healthy food that was grown here, and we’re supporting the people who grow that food. It creates a greater appreciation for how we can serve our own needs here in this community.”

Connecting students with their food and where their food comes from is the goal of the Farm to School program. Another goal: get children tasting and enjoying the local food.

“When kids are connected to their food, they are more enthusiastic about it and are more empowered to make healthier choices,” said Katie Swanson, a local farmer and Blue Zones Project Klamath Falls organization lead. “Plus, it tastes better.”

“Hopefully the kids will appreciate the taste,” said Chris Dalla, Klamath County School District food service supervisor. “Hopefully they’ll appreciate it comes from Klamath County.”

Bruce Topham has been raising cattle on his ranch in Sprague River since 1972. Since 1981, his family has specialized in Salers cattle, a breed derived from the original wild cattle that roamed Europe in the caveman days. The combination of those cattle with the Klamath climate makes a very unique type of beef.

“Fort Klamath and the Sprague River Valley have the best protein grass in the world,” Topham said. “There’s no other place where the cattle gain like they gain in this country. The dirt, or the rain, or the sunshine, it’s right.”

In fact, the grass is so good Topham’s herd thrives, growing quickly into robust cattle.

They contain no additives, are not fed antibiotics and use zero hormones. The Salers have been a closed herd since 1986, meaning no outside cattle have mingled with flying T Cattle since that time. This prevents the introduction of new diseases.

Conversations about getting local food in school lunches have been going on for years, Case said.

“It has to do with the national movement of buying local,” Dalla said. “It’s closer to all of each individual’s community. And you’re helping support the local economy.”

One of those conversations happened at the Find Your Farmer event put on by Blue Zones Project and the Klamath Farmer’s Online Marketplace. Topham and Dalla started a conversation to see if details could be worked out to bring local beef to students’ plates. Eventually they worked through the process that became the April 11 test run brining the beef to schools

“I applaud them for trying something like this,” Topham said. “It’s been quite a project.”

“I appreciate all of the details Bruce had to work through in order to make this happen,” Dalla said, “especially in the middle of a busy calving season.”

It took about 1 ½ cows to produce the 700 pounds of beef for the 4,200 hamburgers. Topham drove the cattle up to Springfield, where his cattle are processed at a USDA approved facility. That facility had to get a specialized hamburger patty stamper to meet the school lunch standards. Most of Topham’s hamburgers are 4 ounces, while school lunch patties are smaller, about 2.8 ounces. The burgers were packaged with paper sheets in between each patty for ease in preparation, flash-frozen and put in 15-pound cases.

To get the beef back to Klamath, Topham arranged and paid for shipping and handling through a current distributor who made a special pickup at the Springfield plant, and then delivered to Klamath on their normal Eugene/Klamath route. The beef arrived at the KCSD warehouse on March 29, the Thursday of spring break. The first week of April, Dalla sent the hamburgers to each school so they could be cooked and served on April 11.

“I was so happy Flying T Ranch was willing to step up and partner with us, because it did take so much understanding, flexibility and patience,” Todd said. “It was awesome they were willing to do it.”

“I don’t think many of us appreciate the effort that goes into it,” Case said. “Those people making those decisions want the best for our kids.”

On April 11, food service staff cooked the hamburgers. This was a slight change from the standard beef patties, which are pre-cooked. Underwood said it was a simple change. In past years the district has cooked raw patties, so it was the same process to cook the Flying T beef.

“When kids learn about where the food comes from, it’s amazing,” Case said. “We live in an agriculture community. Even though we’re surrounded by potato fields, surrounded by beef, it’s amazing kids don’t know where that comes from.”

To prepare the children, KBREC sent posters and information to the schools, including a map of where the cattle grew up in Sprague River. When Topham came to meet the students at Stearns, it further emphasized that connection.

“It didn’t come from the supermarket, it came from right next to you,” Case said. “You’re benefitting from something grown here and raised in the same place you were grown and raised.”

“When they have a relationship with the rancher that raised the cow that provided the beef on their lunch plate,” Swanson said, “they have a much more profound appreciation for their meal and a broader understanding of all the work it took to make that hamburger.”

“It’s a win-win for the kids and for the farmer,” Case said.