In a cooperative effort between ranchers and packers, cattle producers in Washington state are collaborating to put beef on the plates of needy families around the region. The result of this combined effort is Beef Counts, a program designed to make it easier for ranchers to donate beef to needy families through area food banks. Originally the brainchild of Boise, ID-based Agri-Beef Co., the program also involves members of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association (WCA), Beef Commission, and Cattle Feeders, as well as Second Harvest Inland Northwest, which services more than 250 food banks in the region.
Food banks typically hand out mostly starch-based foods, things like pasta, cereal, or rice. These items are cheap to obtain and have a long shelf life, characteristics that are key to the donation-dependent food banks. However, diets comprised of these ingredients are critically lacking in good protein, which is something that food banks are often unable to provide in sufficient quantities, or at a steady rate. This was the hole that Agri-Beef sought to fill. Initially, they began by making direct donations, quietly contributing $50,000 annually to Second Harvest, along with an equal donation to an Idaho food bank, and have continued doing so for the past five years.
For Jason Clark, executive director of Second Harvest, the assistance could not have come at a better time. According to Clark, rising jobless rates and a struggling economy have led to an unprecedented rise in the number of families seeking assistance from food banks. "I’ve been doing this for 17 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this," says Clark, adding that the 250 food banks that his company services have uniformly reported rises in the number of needy families, ranging from 30 percent to 100 percent. "It’s not hard to understand, considering the unemployment rate," he says, "but I’m not sure people realize just how many people are showing up that have never had to visit a food bank before. The sheer number of new people is stunning." More people, he says, than even the increase in donations can cover. Estimates of the number of people being fed have gone from 48,000 per week to well over 60,000, and the actual poundage of food distributed sprang from 15 million to 19.7 million this year. While Clark credits Agri-Beef’s generosity with a large role in the increase of available foodstuffs, he says that banks are still falling short. "The neighborhood banks are telling us that the increase is helpful, but it’s still not enough to satisfy the need," he says.
The continued shortage left Agri-Beef officials pondering what could be done by the beef industry as a whole to provide more help. "We were talking to these food banks and they said their need had grown quite a bit, particularly with regard to protein," said Agri-Beef Marketing Director Jay Theiler. "We started brainstorming what we could do." As a result of that brainstorming session, Agri-Beef and Second Harvest officials approached the WCA last spring with a novel idea. If Washington ranchers would donate calves to the cause, Agri-Beef would match those donations 50 cents on the dollar. "We’re trying to leverage up our donation, so that it’s worth more," said Theiler.
According to Dick Coon, WCA president and Benge area rancher, to say that Washington ranchers have jumped at the chance to help would be a drastic understatement. "We were hit by the idea that it’s a win-win situation for everybody," he said. "It was a chance for us to do something good, it was a reasonable request, and Agri-Beef’s offer to match our donations 50 percent was very generous." He added, "As we learned more about it, and found out what a real protein shortage these folks were suffering from, it made perfect sense." According to Jason Clark, just 4 percent of the 19.7 million pounds of food distributed is in the form of protein. USDA recommends that people consume at least 6 ounces of protein per day, but current supply shortages mean that many food bank customers are receiving less than 1 ounce. Due to costs, much of this protein is provided in the form of things like peanut butter. According to Coon, the revelation that peanut butter was being used as a primary source of protein came as a shock to the state’s ranchers. "That absolutely left me breathless," he said.
Under the Beef Counts program, donated calves are sold in rollover auctions, with each purchaser/donor kicking the animal back into the ring to be sold again. Two such sales have been held in recent weeks, one each at Davenport and Toppenish, with the funds raised exceeding $10,000 at each sale. According to Coon, who provided the donor calf at Davenport, the response by ranchers and other members of the industry has been overwhelming. "I’m so grateful for the generosity of those folks that bought those two calves over and over again," he said. "I’ve seen a lot of fund raisers for worthy causes, and this one really clicked with our crowd." According to WCA, the goal is to raise $100,000 by December, and a friendly rivalry has sprung up between Washington ranchers and a similar program in Idaho to see who reaches the landmark first. According to Patti Brumbach, executive director of the Washington Beef Commission, their current total is roughly $30,000.
With the funds obtained from the calf sales, Second Harvest can purchase beef, at wholesale price, from Agri-Beef’s packing house in Toppenish. According to Theiler, this arrangement removes some of the roadblocks that have long prevented ranchers from directly donating cattle. "People have always wanted to donate cattle," he says. "The problem was how to convert that into usable product for the food banks." Clark agrees that this program solves that issue. "It gets us around the ‘Here’s a cow, now what do we do with it?’ problem," he says. "It makes it easy for folks in the beef industry to convert a calf to cash, which we can use to buy beef to distribute to families." According to Coon, the other problem neatly solved by Beef Counts is how to provide beef at a steady rate. "We used to take boxes of hamburger to the Union Gospel Mission in Spokane when it was convenient," he remembers, "but that’s hardly a consistent supply. The way that Agri-Beef has set it up, turning these calves into cash, and the cash into products that are deliverable, it should act as a reservoir to give people a little steadier supply line." Coon, however, does foresee the possibility of supply problems once the novelty of the program wears off. "The volume of meat that they’re hoping to deliver is really going to be a challenge after the initial enthusiasm wears off," he cautions. "It’s going to be tough to get people to continue to keep this in the front of their mind."
According to Brumbach, events are in the works to help keep ranchers actively involved, starting with taking part in the actual giveaways. Plans are in the works to place donors in Second Harvest’s mobile food bank vehicles when the first beef products roll out this December. Events and interstate rivalries are fun and may help keep the interest level up, but for Coon, the main focus is still on providing food for those who can’t provide for themselves. "Most of us in agriculture can raise a garden," he points out. "Even if times are tough, we can still kill a cull cow and eat if we have to. If you’re stuck in an apartment or a rental someplace, you don’t have those types of options."
Ranchers wishing to get involved in the Beef Counts program are encouraged to contact WCA or the Washington Beef Commission. According to Brumbach, it may also be worthwhile for producers to contact their local sale yards or feedlots, many of whom are already involved in the program. Anyone seeking more information, or wishing to make a direct donation, should visit the Beef Counts website, www.beefcounts.org. — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent