Fresh produce + school districts = win for everyone

04/11/2013 03:18:00 PM
Renee Stern

"If students are willing to try an eggplant and enjoy it, we can only imagine the endless opportunities," Bergstrom says.

Another school district noted a significant jump in student dining when chicken fajitas with Pero's Fresh Fajita Mix of sliced peppers and onions were on the menu, he says.

Fresh green beans in field-trimmed 5-pound packs are one item that Pinellas County schools have added thanks to the new program, says Art Dunham, the district's director of foodservice.

Previously, his cafeterias used only canned or frozen beans.

The fresh beans, with their appealing dark green color, turn up in salads, stir fries and other dishes, Dunham says.

When featuring strawberries, he says, "We brought in flats and flats and buried the students in strawberries." Menu items included chocolate-dipped strawberries, strawberry cupcakes and strawberries in salads.

Students "can tell when it comes right off the farm," he says.

 What's available locally?

 Carol Chong, director of food and menu management at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, says the program pointed her to new avenues for locally grown produce, a sometimes challenging goal for the state's largest district.

She needs 300,000 portions of whatever's on the menu.

Smaller growers may need to partner with a larger operation or—as local starfruit growers did to match the district's needs—band together to make up sufficient volume.

The new program also has opened her eyes to what might be available locally.

"I never knew blueberries were grown in Florida," she says. "We can take advantage of fruit in season that's sweeter and fresher."

And for some high-use items, the statewide bidding process has lowered costs.

"Some things have to be done at a very local level," Chong says. "But this does assist us in getting as competitive as possible or increasing our variety."

Serving costs are an ongoing concern for tight budgets.

Dunham says that adding more fresh, local produce to menus does cost more overall, but that's offset by selling greater numbers of more appealing meals.

Safley says on average, the state's districts are saving a penny or two per serving. "That matters to a district," she says.

Additional funding of 6 cents per serving to help cover higher costs will kick in as schools meet new federal nutrition guidelines, she says.

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