College cafe goes local and gets lesson in grass-fed beef

Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Posted September 7, 2004: Pennsylvania College of Technology recently awarded Northern Tier Sustainable Meats Cooperative, Inc., a local cooperative of grass-fed beef farmers, the school’s 2004-5 ground beef contract. The cooperative will supply the college with approximately 20,000 pounds of bulk ground beef and hamburger patties. Linda Sweely, Director of Food Services at Penn College said “Penn College has decided to use Northern Tier beef for the 2004-5 school year because we feel that the product is a better quality and more nutritious option for our student body.”

Three representatives of Northern Tier spent Tuesday morning educating around 80 Penn College dining service employees about the fundamentals of grass-fed beef. The program, part of an in-service training offered by Penn College Food Service, included a discussion of the benefits of grass-fed meats and a cooking demonstration.

Northern Tier’s President Dale Harper opened the program with a bit of history. “It wasn’t that long ago that the producer-consumer connection was tight,” Dale said. “A man might have shoed your horses in exchange for a bushel of tomatoes. Today, we are completely divorced from the source of our food.” Harper told dining service employees that he was there to “put a face on the ground beef you’re getting this year.”

Northern Tier currently has four members, all of whom farm in Bradford County. Harper told dining service employees that to raise meat for the cooperative, the animals’ diet must be 85% grass-based, and farmers cannot use any chemical wormers, hormones or antibiotics. “We were all already producing beef this way, so forming a cooperative was easy,” Dale said.

Dale’s wife Pam, a school teacher and mother of four, gave personal testimony for why they choose to raise food naturally. The Harper’s fourth child has marked behavioral and learning disabilities. Pam told the group, “When you have a child that is so different, you ask yourself, ‘Where did I go wrong?’” Doctors suggested medicating the child, but Pam “didn’t want to raise a zombie.” She turned instead to nutrition, and got results. “When I learned how conventional meats are produced and processed, I said, ‘No more!’ We haven’t bought meat from a grocery store in 20 years.”

As Pam pointed out, every time animals are packed together for transportation or confined feeding, the risk for disease is increased. To combat this risk, animals are given regular doses of antibiotics. Another concern the Harpers expressed is the industry’s increasing use of growth hormones to fatten animals quickly to save money. “Our meats contain no hormones and no antibiotics. The meat Penn College is getting this year is going from our family farms in Bradford County to Leona Meat Plant in Troy for packaging then to Penn College,” said the Harpers.

"It wasn’t that long ago that the producer-consumer connection was tight. A man might have shoed your horses in exchange for a bushel of tomatoes. Today, we are completely divorced from the source of our food."

Dale Harper, President Northern Tier

The relationship between Northern Tier and Leona Meat Plant is significant. According to a USDA Food and Rural Economics Division report, by 1992 the four largest meat packing firms in the US accounted for 71 percent of industry output. The trend toward consolidation continues, forcing smaller, locally owned packing houses to go out of business. By establishing a relationship with a local processor, Northern Tier not only gives Leona Meats a substantial share of business, they ensure for themselves a local packer with whom they can work to develop products.

One of the products Northern Tier and Leona Meats have developed together is a quarter pound hamburger patty. Ann Seeley, who, together with husband Kim and son Shon, also raises beef for the cooperative, gave a cooking demonstration. Because grass-fed beef tends to be leaner, cooks need to learn how to handle it.

“Overcooking the burger will make it tough and dry,” said Seeley. “Don’t push on the burger with your spatula to squeeze the fat out. It’s a hard habit to break, but you want those delicious juices to stay in the burger. The difference is in the fat!” said Seeley.

In fact, the fat of a grass-fed burger really is different from its conventional counterpart. Grass-fed burgers are high in conjugated linoleic acids, or CLA. Studies have suggested that CLA enhances immune function, acts as an antioxidant, and even lowers the risk of cancer. CLA may also play a valuable role in changing body composition by helping to decrease fat while maintaining or gaining muscle. “This is the good fat that won’t raise your cholesterol,” said Pam.

Penn College has been purchasing from local farmers for several years. The culinary school at Penn College uses a variety of local produce, meats, and dairy products in their restaurant, Le Jeune Chef, and for special events. For over four years, the student dining halls have featured milk from cooperative members Ann and Kim Seeley’s Milky Way Farm.

CAPS: 1= Ann Seeley teaches PCT cooks how to prepare grass-fed beef hamburger and 2= Dale Harper, president of Northern Tier Sustainable Meats Cooperative, feeds one of his grass-fed cows.

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