Opinion: School Meal Move A Win-Win For Growers

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Lisa Lochridge

At FFVA’s board of directors meeting in January, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam outlined new efforts under way by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services now that it is overseeing the school food and nutrition programs. Under the Healthy Schools for Healthy Lives Act, which became effective Jan. 1, the department now has the ability to educate students on nutrition and ensure they have access to the healthful products provided by fresh fruit and vegetable producers throughout the state.

From a big-picture standpoint, Putnam explained, children benefit because the quality of their school meals will improve and they will learn healthy-eating habits that can last a lifetime. Diseases attributed to obesity and poor eating habits (high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease) are a major contributor to soaring health-care costs.

The good news for growers, he said, is that it creates powerful opportunities for new markets. “We now have the real estate of the lunchroom in the schools of Florida 180 days a year to tell our story and build it into the lesson plans,” he said. “There are unlimited possibilities in terms of the things we do and the partnerships we build.”

A Side Of Synchronicity

The timing couldn’t be better. The federal government’s new dietary guidelines call for half of the plate to be vegetables and fruits. First Lady Michelle Obama has taken aim at child obesity with her “Let’s Move” program, which focuses on healthy eating and physical activity. There’s significant interest by consumers in eating food that is produced domestically, regionally, or locally. And more recently, the USDA released new rules that require more fruits and vegetables to be served in school breakfasts and lunches. School districts that meet the guidelines will receive an additional 6¢ of federal reimbursement for each meal. All of those factors provide the perfect backdrop to propel the Agriculture Department’s efforts to success.

Specialty crop producers will have the opportunity to develop a loyal customer base among school districts, which feed 2.5 million children every day, and in many cases twice a day, in addition to summer feeding programs.

Field To Fork

The Department’s work has just begun, and it won’t be easy. Procurement isn’t unified. Each school district’s foodservice director operates independently. The team Putnam has put in place is meeting with stakeholders, gathering information, listening, and learning so they can get this right. One of the biggest challenges is to “solve the distribution riddle,” as Putnam puts it. “I know you all can grow it, and the kids will eat it. Getting it there in the right form … that’s the trick. We have an advisory group that’s tackling nothing but that,” he said.

Besides a more centralized approach to purchasing, another key goal is to help school district buyers understand what’s in season when in Florida. Robin Safley, director of the school food and nutrition programs, detailed to the FFVA board what the Department has been doing since she came on board last September. “We spent a lot of time in the fall understanding the [procurement] system. No one from the government had gone to the districts and asked, ‘What can we do to help you?’”

Safley and her team are conducting a survey to better understand the school districts’ purchasing power — what they are buying in what quantities, pack size, and the distribution system. “We want to figure out what’s happening on the ground and how to make it consistent,” she explained.

That’s where growers can help, she said. Industry input is needed about what will work and what won’t.

Mike Stuart, FFVA president, pointed out that Putnam is not new to child nutrition. “It’s something he’s been working on a long time,” he said. “When he was in Congress, we spent a lot of time working with him on child nutrition reauthorization. He’s been a big supporter of the [USDA] Fruit and Vegetable Program,” which makes free fruit and vegetable snacks available to school children.

FFVA will look for ways to assist in growing this new market.

Lisa Lochridge is the director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association and president of the Agriculture Institute of Florida.

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