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Making Michigan Meat Work in Institutional Food Service

Blended Michigan meat products aim to make local protein more accessible in institutional meal service.

By Noel Bielaczyc, Food Hub & Meat Value Chain Specialist and Nick McCann, Former Michigan Good Food Fund Specialist

The meat to institution challenge (and opportunity)

March 8, 2018

"Nick McCann gets ready to prepare "boil in" bags of blended Michigan beef and turkey taco filler. These bags are pre-blended and ready to be cooked, which mimics the products many institutional food service operations are currently using." Photo credit: Noel BielaczycThe collective efforts of farm to institution platforms, food service leaders, and policy advocates have all helped contribute to incremental progress in institutions sourcing more local fruits, vegetables, dairy, and grains. Despite documented successes in these categories, local proteins are still a rarity on most menus and meal trays in schools and hospitals. Even in regions with robust and established meat to institution programs (like the Montana Beef-to-School program), locally raised meat is a weekly or monthly featured item and not everyday fare. At the same time, proteins make up the largest percent of plate cost in institutional food service, and represent a huge potential to grow local food economies. So why are meat to institution programs such a challenge?

Price is often cited as the biggest barrier preventing institutions from sourcing more locally raised meats from small and medium-sized livestock producers and their processing partners. Indeed, without the same benefits of scale, the price gap between commodity proteins and locally-raised meat & poultry can be much wider than for other food categories. But the focus on price alone can be misleading: Cost comparisons typically overlook the fact that many protein products found in institutional food service contain 20-30% textured soy protein (TSP), which acts as a filler and creates a sizable price advantage when compared to 100% meat products. When we consider what these products actually consist of, much of this artificial price advantage is lost. 

Similarly, the cost of processing commodity protein products is not always taken into account. Most schools pay a third party to process basic USDA commodity foods (predominantly meat and cheese) into products that fit into their meal plans. Even though schools receive credits to purchase many USDA commodity foods (making them essentially free), the processing of these foods can be quite costly. For example, the Michigan Department of Education might spend $33.45 per case to have “free” USDA raw chicken processed into breaded and formed nuggets.[1] Typically, these lucrative processing contracts go to a handful of large, multinational firms located out of state, meaning many millions of dollars are leaving local communities. Capturing even a small slice of the institutional food service market in Michigan would provide the stable demand and high volumes necessary to help grow and scale local meat value chains.

New solutions for meat to institution programs

"A Michigan Beef-n-Bean Blend Tostada topped with fresh lettuce and tomatoes". Photo credit: Noel BielaczycRecent work by specialists at the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS) has begun to crack the code on meat to institution through innovative product development. Working closely with the MSU Meat Lab, CRFS is developing a full line of cost-competitive local meat products for institutional food service markets that meet all the stringent nutritional and format requirements. These products achieve this by replacing TSP with a variety of Michigan-sourced dry beans, which improves the nutritional profile, lowers cost per serving, and eliminates soy allergens. Additionally, these ready-to-eat blended meat products can be made in nearly any small, USDA-inspected meat plant without the need to invest in expensive, specialized processing equipment. The current list of products includes blended beef patties, blended beef taco filler, and blended turkey taco filler, with blended pork breakfast patties, blended pork sloppy joes, and blended turkey hot dogs still in development. The project is actively seeking producers, processors, and institutional food service partners who are interested in piloting these products in their regions. Please contact Noel Bielaczyc if you are interested in sourcing local meat for your institution! 

[1] Lucy Komisar, “How the Food Industry Eats Your Kid’s Lunch,” New York Times,