On Friday, June 5, 2020, over 5,000 pounds of pork worth $20,000 were donated to Missoula Food Bank and Community Center from the Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) Ag Center. The processed pork in a variety of cuts came from 30 pigs from a South Dakota hog farm after the DECA club at Big Sky High School, the Missoula FFA Chapter, the Corvallis FFA Chapter, and the Montana FFA Foundation pitched in money to help pay for them. The processing of the meat was done by the staff of the MCPS Ag Center, which includes trained high school students.
“This amazing opportunity was made possible through a network of famers, farm educators, and students who want to make sure that families have essential nutrition support during this global pandemic,” commented Tom Andres, head of the MCPS Ag Center and one of the Missoula FFA advisors. “Our farm education program teaches students the full life cycle of producing, harvesting, and processing food. In this instance, our staff and students get the experience of being a part of another layer of the essential workforce keeping people fed during the pandemic.”
That network of farmers began with a South Dakota hog producer who was left wondering what to do with his hogs when the Smithfield Foods processing plant shut down during the pandemic. He started calling processing facilities along Interstate 90 and reached the MCPS Ag Center. Andres heard his story and said, “I felt like I wanted to help him because he was working so hard to help himself.” The farmer just wanted a fair price, rather than have to euthanize the animals. The groups insisted on paying market price for the 30 hogs and ended up paying $5,000. for the 30 hogs because they insisted on paying market price. With this money, the South Dakota farmer paid the help forward by paying his neighbor, a livestock hauler who was also out of work, to transport the hogs to Missoula.
The meat processing facility is the about a year old and is the only state-inspected meat lab that is attached to a high school in the country. Andres explains, “When we originally decided to build this thing, it was mainly just so that we could process the pigs and the beef we grow on our little school farm, which is 100 acres, but it’s grown into something a lot more than that.”
The state-level inspection allows the facility to sell meat they process to any cafeteria, restaurant, or other business within Montana and most of it ends up in the MCPS school lunch programs. In regards to helping out their community and the farmer in need, Andres says, “We’re pretty lucky to have it [the facility] and we feel fortunate to have it, and also a little bit obligated to put it to use for this situation. We’re able to help so we might as well do it.”
Andres said the students and staff were excited to step up and help the ag industry through this trying time. “We’ve been pulling some pretty long days here and the reason is we want to do our part. Trying to keep the food chain moving, trying to keep these pigs from ending up in the landfill, and try to, not necessarily provide financial support to pig farmers and ranchers , but some emotional support to let them know that we’re on their side and we’re here to help because I know that this is really a trying time for all of them.”
On the other end of the food chain, the Missoula Food Bank & Community Center is Missoula’s primary resource for emergency food assistance. In 2019, the organization helped one in five people in Missoula County with basic food needs, and in the first three weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the food bank helped more than 500 families who had never needed food bank assistance before. The donation will also help families as they transition to the summer months.
“Our food bank sees a marked increase in the number of families with school-aged children each summer,” says Jamie Kocsondy, Programs Manager at the food bank. “This donation from MCPS and other partners will allow our food bank to distribute regionally-raised, locally-processed protein. It’s an incredible opportunity to partner with the MCPS Ag Center, and a model we hope to replicate in the future.”
Missoula County Public Schools
Northern Ag Network
Photo Credit: National FFA Organization