Sometimes the lessons learned in school extend far beyond the classroom. Just ask Crystal Sneed and Brittany Eldridge. The juniors at Southwestern High School, in Hanover, Ind., participate in the Community Calf Project, a unique program that teaches them skills in animal husbandry while opening their eyes to the region’s food insecurity.
The project came to life in the spring of 2013 through collaboration between the school’s agriculture teacher and FFA adviser Greg Schneider and officials with Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana. Schneider was looking for ways to engage students using hands-on examples in his classroom, while the food bank needed donations.
Schneider concluded what better way for the students — many who don’t have a farm background — to understand animal production and care than by raising cattle on the school grounds? He also felt compelled to respond to the fact that 54% of Southwestern’s students receive free lunches or meal assistance, with one out of four students in his class potentially living in a food insecure home.
Gleaners officials had already approached area farmers to donate a single animal each year as part of a new campaign to increase stocks of protein, such as red meat, in their food pantries across the state. Schneider’s plan was a more sustainable approach.
“Asking a farmer to donate a cow was like asking someone to cash in a $1,200 CD and give them the money,” he explained. “It would be great if we could all do that, but the likelihood of it won’t keep the freezer full.
“The second problem was asking 2% of the [nation’s] population [that farm] to shoulder the broad national, even global, issue of solving food insecurity,” Schneider continued. “An inverted pyramid will quickly topple.”
The Community Calf Project encourages broad participation. Students raise money through donations and grants to buy calves, feed and equipment. Pens are refilled each quarter with a new pair of calves. Local farmers host the calves on their farms once the animals outgrow the pens on the school grounds. The students follow right along, trekking out to farms several times a week to feed and care for them.
Once the cattle reach market weight, they are processed, and the meat is donated to the food pantry located at the high school and others throughout Jefferson County.
This June will mark the first delivery of meat raised by Southwestern students.
Debbie Russell and Robert Wilson, of Gleaners Food Bank, estimate each donor calf will yield between 600 and 800 pounds of ground beef. That’s up to 3,000 1/4-pound servings. Wilson says in recent years, demand for perishable foods like fruits, vegetables, eggs, dairy and meat has risen. The Community Calf Project is working toward filling that new need in Jefferson County.
Learning how to care for cattle was an eye-opening experience for Sneed, who has never lived or worked on a farm. Following the death of one of the calves they were raising, Sneed says she felt the same frustration a rancher might experience.
“It’s hard seeing the animal sick and trying to help it as much as you can, but you know at a certain point there’s nothing you can really do,” she said.
A necropsy revealed congenital heart failure and fluid in the lungs. That’s a lose-lose situation and one the students couldn’t have prevented as the heart condition was likely present at the calf’s birth, Schneider explained. Sneed points out the class used the experience to work even harder to keep the other calves in the project healthy and happy.
Eldridge takes the hands-on skills she learns taking care of the calves at school and applies them to her family’s farm. She’s already responsible for feeding and administering shots to her family’s cattle, with delivery training in the works. Eldridge explained the veterinary science class taught her how to treat calf scours.
Just as important, the service portion of the Community Calf Project encouraged Eldridge to consider the needs in her community. “[Touring] Gleaners made me realize how much food they need to feed all the families that are food insecure,” she explained. “I never really paid attention to it before because my family was fine. Now I see it’s real [food insecurity], and we need to do something about it.”
School officials and the community have enthusiastically supported the project. Jodi Gray is one of those supporters. She became interested from the moment Schneider proposed the project to the school board and now hosts three of the project’s calves on her family’s farm. Three of her four children are students at Southwestern, and one participates in the FFA chapter and Community Calf Project. Her son is primarily responsible for taking care of the project’s calves while they reside on the farm, with assistance from classmates several days a week.
Gray praises the project for teaching the students lessons that reach beyond the school’s doors. “You learn about what it costs to [purchase] an animal and the cost of feed and that sort of thing. So it puts things in perspective for them on many different levels,” she says.
The project also helps rally the community around a common cause, Gray continues. She points out people can donate money, time, expertise, materials and space to host calves. “The outcome is going to be very exciting for a lot of people.”
Joe Robbins agrees. The Community Calf Project volunteer sells feed to the students from his store in neighboring Scott County. Robbins taught the students about rations when the project first started. Now, he mostly supervises feed choices, and the students do the heavy lifting.
“[They] have been tremendous about getting involved and wanting to learn,” he says. “It has been kind of an eye-opener what the end result is of that calf, but that’s a good thing because they need to know where their food comes from.”
Schneider and Robbins hope to expand their efforts. They have proposed a community learning center to house cattle for the Community Calf Project and to also include hogs, turkeys, layers and vegetables. Students would attend ag classes at the center.
Classes would be available to area residents, as well, to learn about gardening, for example, so they could produce some of their own food. The plan calls for 15 to 20 acres for animal and vegetable production, and a grain plot for field trials and income generation for the center.
Southwestern’s students are anxious for expansion, too. After her own tour of Gleaners this year, Sneed says the organization’s overwhelming needs “made her want to get more calves and start producing more animals for the food bank.”
For information about Gleaners Food Bank, contact Debbie Russell at 317-925-0191, or visit here. For information about the Community Calf Project, contact Greg Schneider at email@example.com.