YouTube still from True Beef: From Pasture to Plate
A documentary film explores meat production through the eyes of high school culinary students. (Photo: YouTube)

CARLSBAD, Calif. – At the opening session of the North American Meat Institute’s Management Conference April 16, culinary arts instructor Chef Mike Erickson shared the story of how he led some eager-to-learn students from John B. Connally High School on a unique culinary journey to learn more about the origin of meat foodservice professionals rely on every day. He created a documentary film, “True Beef: From Pasture to Plate” based on a year-long process of traveling more than 2,200 miles to give students at the Austin, Texas-based school a farm-to-fork perspective of the food supply chain.

Having taught culinary arts for 11 years at the college level and most recently as part of a vocational program at the high school, Erickson says the purpose of creating the documentary was initially to use it as a teaching tool for future classes at his schools and, he hoped, at other schools in the area and across the state. By the end of the project, the documentary had evolved to much more.

For approximately one year, students traveled with Erickson all over the state “in a yellow school bus” to see firsthand what goes into the meat they cook, visiting cattle ranches and farms including tours of slaughtering facilities and packing plants.

“One of the things we wanted to educate the kids about was understanding that without the ranchers and farmers and without what you guys do, I wouldn’t have a job,” Erickson said. And, he added, the kids he teaches to go into the foodservice and culinary profession wouldn’t have the opportunity pursue those careers without the commitment and hard work of people throughout the supply chain.

He remembers when he started teaching high school about six years ago, about the time when the movie “Food Inc.” was released, which served as inspiration for the teaching project and ultimately the documentary. The film, he said, “is not about me, it is about the beef industry and it’s about these kids and their journey learning about beef, through their eyes.”

The 90-minute film, which was shown at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin earlier this month, has garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews, which made Erickson think about bigger opportunities for the film. It is slated for two more film festivals in the coming months.

“We never had any ambition of going anywhere other than our state. It was designed to educate kids in Texas,” he said.

Given the widespread popularity of the film, which was sponsored in part by US Foods and the Texas Beef Council, Erickson and the Pflugerville Independent School District, are developing a plan to expand the distribution of the film, which has suddenly become a hot commodity outside the borders of Texas. “The school district never thought this was going to happen and neither did I,” said Erickson. “We’ve had offers and we’ve shown it in New Mexico, Colorado and Oklahoma and now California.” In the wake of the unexpected success, an advisory board has been formed by the school district to develop a plan to make the film available to classrooms across the country.

Meanwhile Erickson encouraged anyone who is interested in getting a copy of the movie or helping get it distributed to contact him or the North American Meat Institute. The film, he said, is just a starting point, “and it’s a positive message about the industry that we can take and get to teachers,” providing a new perspective for them and their students.