Jeff Yost: Unleashing Our Abundant Local Assets

By Jeff Yost

At Nebraska Community Foundation we have collection of phrases we call “Words to Live By.”  The sayings are reminders and reinforcements of our culture.

One of my favorite phrases is a poignant expression of the confidence we have in the future of Greater Nebraska – “Everything we need is right where we are!”

Nebraska is a state of abundance, with great schools, thriving businesses, low unemployment, and according to the most recent UNL rural poll, increasing optimism among our citizens. We take many of our advantages for granted. Perhaps our most under-appreciated asset is our capacity to produce food.

We are situated in arguably the most fertile landscape atop the largest underground aquifer in the world! So, it boggles the mind to think that most of the food we serve our children is processed, packaged and shipped from places hundreds of miles away from our child’s place at the table.

Thankfully, there is a growing trend among people of all ages to think globally and act locally when it comes to producing nutritious meals for children, supporting local agriculture, and using what is readily available to “make what we need.”

Many school districts in Nebraska now have “beef in the school” programs, whereby local producers donate livestock for processing and preparing high-protein lunches. Nebraska Community Foundation partners with a number of our affiliated funds to encourage this growing movement.

One very successful program has been in place for several years at Thayer Central Public Schools in Hebron.

The Hebron Community Foundation Fund has an account for the specific purpose of accepting gifts of livestock, which provides donors a tax benefit, along with financial contributions to cover the costs of processing the meat. In just over three years, 32 head of cattle have been committed to the program, which serves about 450 K-12 kids. The money saved by not having to buy meat for 40 percent of their school days enabled Thayer Central to purchase furniture and complete remodeling projects.

The school also has a greenhouse and grow towers, and there are plans to expand the program by getting the FFA class involved in working with orchard trees, honey bees and poultry. Superintendent Drew Harris says that at least 50 schools have contacted him and are seriously exploring programs of their own.

And why not? In Nebraska, agriculture should represent more than just commodity production. It should be (and is) occupying a prominent position in our schools’ STEM curriculum.

Fortunately, this is happening in lots of places, including Arnold, another NCF affiliated-fund community. Charitable dollars have purchased aeroponic tower gardens. Students of all ages care for vegetables grown in chambers that contain only water and fertilizer. They do everything from maintaining pH and nutrient levels to planting and harvesting cucumbers, squash, green beans and more for school lunches. Arnold Community Fund also has a “beef booster” account through which livestock and cash are donated to supplement the school’s meals.

The Shickley Community Foundation Fund provided significant support for its school’s new fully equipped greenhouse. Teachers say that having a hands-on experience to teach biological concepts not only increases deeper understanding, it enables students to see another side of the agriculture industry. Similar programs and facilities are in place in O’Neill and Elgin.

But “growing our own” is not just for kids!

Late last month, Nebraska’s only zip code beer – “68713” – was on tap for the first time at Brush Creek Brewing Company in Atkinson. The barley, the hops and all the ingredients needed for production come from the zip code area the beer is named after.

The debut was a fitting component to Atkinson’s first annual Harvest Festival. All proceeds collected during a day of celebration in the town and at the brew pub went for the purpose of putting the Atkinson Community Foundation Fund over the top in its challenge grant campaign.

Their success will result in a $300,000 addition to the community’s unrestricted endowment that will, forever, help to ensure that in the community of Atkinson, everything they need is right where they are.

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