Thanks to funding from the federal CARES Act, the Hall County School District is looking to expand its agribusiness education program with a meat processing facility on the East Hall High School campus.
“The federal government was absolutely enamored with this idea,” Superitendent Will Schofield said. “They said they’d never had an idea like this [presented to them].”
Schofield, who has a background in agribusiness, said the idea for a protein processing facility had been part of the wish list during the development of the school district’s agriculture pathway a couple of years ago, but the coronavirus pandemic propelled the project forward. Schofield noted that the bulk of food processing – including meat processing – in the United States is handled by a handful of mega-companies.
“Almost three-fourths of the meat that we buy on a weekly basis is really processed by three companies,” Schofield said. “During the COVID pandemic, what we all experienced was just how fragile that system is, and how if just one of those companies shuts down – and Heaven forbid, two or all three – there is no protein. What we saw was farmers actually euthanizing animals instead of processing them.”
Schofield said the Hall County School District is one of the largest providers of meals in the county, and that fact also influenced the decision to develop a processing facility within the school district.
“We serve about 30,000 meals a day [and] we need a reliable source of protein just for our school food service program,” Schofield said.
Another reason, according to Schofield, is giving local farmers another outlet for selling their product. Then, of course, the major benefit is educating students for careers beyond high school.
“What we see is that there are tremendous opportunities for individuals who have these protein processing skills,” Schofield said. “What we’re seeing across the country is individuals who know how to cut and process meat can step right into the job market at $30, $40, $50 an hour entry and make just about as much money as they want.”
East Hall High School Principal Jeff Cooper said the school already offers a number of courses in the agriculture pathway, and the meat processing program will enhance what’s already offered.
“This will be a full-fledged scenario as far as the processing goes,” Cooper said. “We would put the animals down, and then we would do all the cutting and everything that goes into that process.”
Cooper said the plan, as it’s laid out now, calls for beef processing initially and possibly some poultry processing.
“I can see as we get things established and going that it could go in a further direction,” Cooper said.
Schofield said just as with other career pathway programs, there are health and safety protocols the school system must follow, and that will be the case with the plant at EHHS.
“I would certainly want there to be some quality standards if we’re going to put a hamburger on somebody’s plate,” Schofield said. “We’ve worked hand-in-hand with [Commissioner] Gary Black and the Georgia Department of Agriculture. There will be an on-site inspector every time that we cut meat. We’ll have to build the facility up to standards, which is, of course, what we’d all want to be able to put a safe product out for our community.”
Schofield said the free-standing facility will cost between $2 and $3 million. He said he hopes the plant will be up and running in a year.
To find out more about the Hall County School District’s Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources Pathway, follow this link.