Hall County school board members will vote on funding for a meat processing center that is expected to cost roughly $9 million.
That figure represents the preliminary budget, district officials said, and it includes a $2.5 million state grant, which the district secured during last year's legislative session. According to a preliminary breakdown of funding sources, about $3.9 million will be drawn from federal COVID-19 relief funds, $2 million from local tax revenue and possibly another $2 million from the district’s nutrition budget.
The vote is scheduled for Jan. 23.
Matt Cox, director of facilities and construction, said they plan to complete the 13,687-square-foot meat processing center in December. It will be built at the district's 51-acre Agribusiness Center, and board chairman Craig Herrington said they will submit permitting requests Jan. 19 to the Hall County Board of Commissioners. The contractor is Carroll Daniel Construction and the architect is Hussey Gay Bell.
Superintendent Will Schofield has criticized the meat industry oligopoly and advocated for a “return to local.”
"What COVID taught us was that our protein supply in this country is extremely fragile," Schofield said at the Jan. 10 board meeting. "We were struggling to get chicken nuggets and hamburger and sausage for our lunch rooms because we've had such a move away from local (supply). ... We serve 25,000 meals a day, and there's no reason we can't supply some of our own protein in our lunch rooms."
At a dual-enrollment agreement signing between University of Georgia and Hall County Schools, Nick Place, dean and director of UGA’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, said, “There's over 550 farms here in the county, 41,000 acres of land and about 98% of the sales fall under livestock and poultry.”
In January last year, the Gainesville and Hall County school districts reported food shortages, particularly chicken and cereals, and Hall County Schools had struggled with shortages of chicken products since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The meat processing center will provide a market not only for the district's own Agribusiness Center, where cows are raised, but for local farmers as well. The center will also include "a storefront where people can come in and get a couple ribeyes for the weekend," Schofield said.
President Joe Biden’s administration has sought to increase competition in the meat industry in an effort to lower consumer prices, the Associated Press has reported. The administration has taken aim at meat processing plants, which have the power to affect how much farmers are paid and how much consumers are charged. Four companies control 85% of the beef market, according to a fact sheet
In addition to supplying some of the district’s animal protein needs and serving as a market for local farmers, the new center will also serve as a training ground for students who might fancy a career as a butcher.
“If you can cut meat, you can earn beginning salaries anywhere from $30 to $40 an hour,” he said. “And we have a number of students who are going to love to pick up that trade.”
Schofield said their meat processing center will be one of a kind.
"It will be the only one of this scale in the country,” he said. “There is one in Missoula, Montana. There's one just outside of Little Rock, Arkansas, but I would call those really play meat processing plants. This is designed to be a functioning meat processing plant with the oversight of a couple of adults who are trained, teaching our students protein processing."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.