DAVENPORT — Ranchers and packing houses are cooperating to put more beef on the tables of hungry families across Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
They are dismayed that very little meat is being given away by local food banks, displaced instead by other, cheaper sources of protein, such as peanut butter.
“We don’t like to hear that,” said Dick Coon, who ranches in the rough scablands country southwest of Spokane.
The beef push is part of a new statewide program by livestock associations called Beef Counts, which is designed to make it easy for ranchers to donate cattle to food banks.
In Eastern Washington, where millions of acres produce some of the world’s most bountiful crops of wheat, apples, potatoes, corn, peas, raspberries, pears and peaches, and where feedlots fatten huge herds of cattle, there are tens of thousands of locals who go hungry — including 15,000 children, according to Second Harvest of the Inland Northwest, which collects and distributes food to about 275 regional food banks.
Coon donated a calf during a special auction this week in Davenport to jump-start the charitable program. The 585-pound Black Angus circled the pen and by the time the calf was bought and sold several times, ranchers and companies had donated $10,489 to Second Harvest.
In the future, ranchers who want to donate cattle can send them to auction and the proceeds will go toward supplying meat to food banks.
Farm Credit Services, an agricultural lender, bought the calf first, paying $2 a pound. That’s a hefty sum — cattle at the Davenport auction were fetching about $1.20 a pound, up from 95 cents a year ago. High corn prices driven by higher ethanol production has kept livestock producers from expanding their herds, which is driving up prices.
“We’re happy to do it,” said Farm Credit spokeswoman KayDee Gilkey. “Second Harvest plays an important role.” The calf was then returned and put back up for sale.
The partnership with ranchers comes at a fortuitous time for both ranchers and food banks.
With cattle prices as high as they’ve been since the 1980s, ranchers are looking for a way to parlay some of their good fortune into charitable giving.
“This year the cattle people and the wheat people are pretty happy,” said auctioneer Ted Kerst.
Patti Brumbach, executive director of the Washington State Beef Commission, said the state’s livestock industry wanted to start the program regardless of the high price.
The timing is welcomed by Second Harvest.
High unemployment and the sour economy have translated into more needy families, said Jason Clark, executive director of the nonprofit.
“On the demand side we’re up 30 to 40 percent,” he said. “Our biggest worry is that we have another two years of this. This is the worst we’ve seen and the challenges are just enormous.”
Mike and Liz Para run a feedlot out of Othello and plan to make donations through the beef program.
“We like the idea that what we’re giving will be in the form of getting beef on the table,” Mike Para said.
The Paras and others in the cattle business including ranchers were chagrined to learn this year the bags of groceries given away to hungry families included very little meat. Instead the main protein source for the region’s poor is peanut butter.
“That’s not good enough,” Coon said. He thinks ranchers will jump at the chance to get at least some fresh beef on more tables. Much of it will be less spendy cuts such as chucks and roasts, good for stews and simple meals.
Dietary guidelines recommend that people eat ample protein although most push for lower-fat sources such as beans, nuts and fish.
But Second Harvest is only able to provide 0.7 ounces of protein per person a day.
Protein is important for muscle development, the immune system, a healthy metabolism and heart and lung functions.
At the very least the new program may be able to help Second Harvest periodically offer fresh beef.
Agri Beef, a Boise-based company with slaughter and packing plants in central Washington, is a key player in the program. The firm will match up to $50,000 in meat and cash donations to Beef Counts. It will handle the logistics of turning donated cattle into packaged meat delivered to Second Harvest and ready for distribution, said Jay Theiler, director of marketing.
The company has quietly donated $50,000 in cash to Second Harvest each year and this year wants to leverage its money to get cattlemen more involved.
Coon believes ranchers are up to it.
“A lot of people have had to tighten their belts, but you know, those of us in agriculture don’t have to go hungry. We can grow gardens and, if need be, butcher a cow,” Coon said. “But these kids and older folks we’re helping out, they can’t really do that.”