Thoughtful meals: Deer Lakes starts weekly farm-to-table lunch program
Something new is simmering at Deer Lakes School District.
Forget the “mystery meat” label from school lunches — fresh local foods are appearing on their lunch lines.
The district has implemented a new “Comfort Food Thursdays” farm-to-table program in partnership with Mish Farms Meat Market in Gibsonia.
Joe Beaman, director of food services at Deer Lakes, is on a mission to provide students with more locally sourced foods and less processed meals.
“We should have a connection to our food,” Beaman said. “School food doesn’t have to be the old ‘slop it on the plate’ experience.”
Beaman, raised in Wisconsin in a “restaurant family,” brings a lifetime of culinary experience to Deer Lakes. He worked on the management team at the food services department at the University of Northern Colorado before moving to Pennsylvania. Previously he was employed by the Mt. Pleasant School District.
He and his cafeteria crew operate a “food court setting” at the high school, offering eight to nine entrees daily.
Beaman strives to distance his menu offerings from the processed food world, instead offering freshly prepared foods frequently to the more than 400 high school lunches served daily.
“Comfort Food Thursdays” began last January, offering freshly prepared beef twice monthly from Mish Farms.
Mish Farms owner Kim Guthrie delivers 60 pounds of fresh beef weekly, consisting of bottom and top round and sirloin tip cuts that feeds the entire district.
Guthrie’s three children are enrolled in the district.
“I was so excited when Joe approached me about this,” Guthrie said.
“Packing lunches is not always an option. With all of the processed food today, it is wonderful to know that every child has an opportunity to have a fresh, local meal at least once a week.”
Guthrie delivers the beef slabs on Tuesdays, allowing Beaman and his staff time to prepare the meat.
Family owned Mish’s has raised beef for more than 45 years, and all of their cattle are free of antibiotics, steroids and growth hormones.
Deer Lakes is the only school district with a rural zoning designation in Allegheny County, according to Beaman.
The district recently assembled a Deer Lakes School Wellness Committee dedicated to the whole health of the whole school.
All four school campuses serve the same meal on Comfort Food Thursdays, feeding more than 1,250 students districtwide, Beaman said.
“We can put it out (the local beef) cheaper than making pizzas,” he said. “We are able to fully season and prepare this beef in-house. This saves on the processing costs that are associated with some of our other items.”
Beaman was motivated after attending a food-focused conference in Georgia last year. There, he was exposed to a bevy of ideas from other educators on the farm-to-table trend.
Students are bragging up the Comfort Food Thursdays program.
“I don’t eat that healthy, but I am on board with this, and it’s nice to know where the meat is coming from,” said senior Sam Smallwood. “I love the braised beef they serve, and you can taste the quality.”
Junior Samantha Woloszyk doesn’t normally eat beef.
“I eat this beef,” Woloszyk said. “That is saying something. He (Beaman) is a great chef, great at mixing things up.”
“I buy my lunch everyday at school and I really prefer our Mish Farms meat — our local meat — because it’s just healthier for you and it definitely tastes really good,” said junior Angelina Saldamarco.
Comfort Food Thursdays will resume in the fall when students return from summer break. Beaman is pleased with the student participation.
“The numbers grow every time we have it,” Beaman said. “The kids are really buying into the program.”
“I believe this is just the beginning in the change of school lunch,” Guthrie said. “Joe has made many changes in offering other local fresh products. Kids need to learn where their food comes from which helps them make positive food choices.”
Joyce Hanz is a freelance writer.