Q&A: Florida Ag Commissioner Takes On Nutrition In Public Schools

Adam Putnam_School Lunch

During the 2011 legislative session, the school lunch program was moved under the authority of FDACS. According to Commissioner Adam Putnam, the move will benefit both school children and farmers in the state. Florida Grower caught up with Commissioner Putnam to discuss the program move.

Q: What’s the back story of how the School Nutrition Program got moved under FDACS?
Previously, the state’s school nutrition programs were managed by the Department of Education, where school nutrition was one among many challenges. Under the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, nutrition is one of my top priorities.

Our goal is to improve the nutritional value of school meals by helping schools incorporate more fresh fruits and vegetables. Fortunately, we grow an abundance of wholesome foods in Florida; it’s just a matter of enabling schools to access more locally-grown produce.

During the 2011 legislative session, I worked with members of the Legislature to transfer the state’s school food and nutrition programs to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The Legislature passed the measure, it was signed by the Governor, and the programs officially transferred January 1.

Q: How will having the program under FDACS benefit school kids?
Putnam: Improving the nutritional value of school meals is a top priority at the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Leveraging our strong relationships with Florida’s agricultural producers, we believe we can direct more fresh and wholesome foods to Florida’s schools.

By improving the nutritional value of school meals and encouraging them to choose healthy options, we can help kids grow an appreciation for fresh and wholesome foods, establishing a foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating.

Q: How will this program adjustment benefit growers?
Putnam: As schools demand more fresh fruits and vegetables for their school meals, they’ll depend more and more on Florida growers to provide the highest quality product at the right price.

In Florida, we’re fortunate to grow an abundance of fresh and wholesome foods, exactly what we should be serving in our school cafeterias.

Additionally, kids who enjoy the produce they taste at school may encourage their families to buy and eat it at home as well. I visited Potter Elementary in Tampa recently where a kid tasted green beans for the first time and loved them. I guarantee you that kindergartener told his mom about green beans when he got home.

Q: What was the purpose of the recent stakeholder meeting and what resulted from the gathering?
Putnam: In December, I hosted a forum in Tampa, where 40 stakeholders in school nutrition sat around one table to discuss the challenges we must overcome in order to direct more fresh produce to schools. School leaders, school foodservice personnel, parents, farmers, distributors, and members of the health community were at the same table for the first time, all with one shared mission: to improve what our kids are eating.

It is important that all of these parties play a role in improving nutrition among Florida’s children. Without the support of educators and parents, we may still be able to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables, but the kids may not choose the healthy options. The participation of all stakeholders is vital to the success of our mission.

We talked about how schools can save money by ordering produce during Florida’s harvest season. Simply educating the decision-makers about Florida’s harvest seasons can make a significant impact on the cafeteria line and the school’s bottom line.

We also discussed the topics of procurement and distribution. While these issues are more complicated and may take time to improve, we’re confident that, together, we can come up with sensible solutions.

We’re going to continue to bring these bright minds together to help us overcome the barriers that lie in the way of serving healthy foods.

Q: What kind of feedback are you expecting from schools, and will the kids eat their veggies?
Putnam: We’re already seeing a change in schools. I’ve visited many schools during the first semester of this year and I can sense the enthusiasm among school leadership and school food service staff about the new direction.

Many schools across the state are already serving locally-grown produce and using innovative techniques to encourage students to eat healthy. We want to expand on these success stories to reach even more children throughout Florida.

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