It's hard to avoid the fact that eating local is the hottest thing in today's food world. People are flooding markets and farm stands to get their "farm to fork" kick. For Michigan State University, however, eating locally has a completely new meaning as researchers from the Department of Animal Science and MSU Extension are partnering with MSU Culinary Services, a department of MSU Residential and Hospitality Services, to bring beef produced on MSU farms to restaurants and cafeterias throughout campus.
"The number one hot trend as it relates to restaurants and as it relates to consumers is local food," says animal science assistant professor and MSU Extension beef specialist Jason Rowntree. "The biggest challenge, however, is how do you get the product to where the demand is?"
Recognizing that demand, Rowntree approached MSU Culinary Services with an idea to develop a program where restaurants and cafeterias on campus would serve meat from animals raised on MSU farms – the most "local" food possible. With support from Culinary Services and Sysco–Grand Rapids, one of MSU's food service product suppliers, the partners embarked on a pilot program to take beef raised at the MSU Purebred Beef Cow-Calf Teaching and Research Center and the MSU Beef Cattle Research and Teaching Center to the plates of hungry patrons at places like The State Room at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center and The Gallery in the Snyder-Phillips Residence Hall complex. The goal of the project is to develop a model that can be replicated throughout the state, where institutions – universities, hotels, restaurants – can source locally produced meat from small- and medium-sized livestock producers, providing their customers with the local food they are demanding. The benefit of the project also reaches beyond the consumer by helping small- and medium-sized producers and food processors enter a new market, teaching food service professionals how to make optimum use of an entire animal and making it possible to lower food costs despite continually rising prices.
"One of the largest challenges with respect to Culinary Services is that they source a high volume of very specific cuts of meat in order to prepare the same meal across a variety of venues," Rowntree explains. "An important assumption of our model is that, by working with chefs and other food service professionals to learn ways to use more meat cuts from more parts of the animal, we can lower the entire cost per pound of that product."
One area where this model could be beneficial, according to MSU Extension meat quality specialist Jeannine Schweihofer, is with Culinary Services' use of flank steak.
"Currently, it would take more than 5,300 beef cattle to supply the amount of flank steak Culinary Services uses annually," she says. "If chefs could substitute different cuts of meat for just one of their flank steak recipes, it could drastically increase the percentage of cuts they use from the carcass."
Although beef from the MSU farms won't be available until mid-June, the chefs began preparing last fall to learn how to incorporate different cuts of beef into new and existing recipes.
"One of the most enjoyable and, I think, educational experiences took place this last November when we were able to work with the Michigan Beef Industry Commission, the MSU chefs and Dr. Jeannine Schweihofer, to sit down with the chefs to cook the different recipes and see whether or not they enjoyed them," Rowntree sats. "Feedback from all of the chefs was very positive."
This project is just one more addition to MSU's strong history of producing quality beef cattle and working to reach out to the public, which is becoming ever more interested in learning more about where its food comes from. While there is still much to learn when the project enters the implementation phase next month, Rowntree and his colleagues are confident that this is the beginning of a bright future where everyone in the food chain – from farmer to foodie – can work together to produce a product they are interested in serving and eating.