Putting more local fruits and vegetables on the plates of Florida's school children is getting a boost through a statewide program that consolidates and simplifies purchasing.
Run through the Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Department, the Farm to School Program introduced for the 2012-2013 academic year also incorporates educational material linked to a Florida-grown produce item of the week.
Previous efforts in state schools didn't match the potential of Florida's abundant produce offerings, says Robin Safley, director of the Agriculture Department's Division of Food Nutrition and Wellness.
"There were pockets of success," Safley says. "But not on the scale you'd expect, especially with the way the growing season meshes with the school year."
A common produce menu
One obstacle was a fragmented market where each school district set menus and purchased produce independently, complicating the process for suppliers and customers alike, she says. The solution was to create a common produce menu, based on seasonal availability, with the state's 67 districts.
This year's featured produce started with okra, squashes and eggplant in the fall, highlighted tangerines before Christmas, and moved into cantaloupe, watermelon and blueberries in the spring. Schools help introduce unfamiliar items such as okra with taste tests and "I tried it" stickers.
Each district chooses how to prepare the featured item. But the common push includes educational posters of the Florida-grown and nutritional aspects, flyers with recipes for parents, and classroom exercises for elementary schools, she says.
Coordinating menus also allows for more bulk purchases of major staple menu items, such as potatoes and corn, reducing the bite on school budgets and creating a more stable market for growers, Safley says.
Although school purchases currently comprise a small percentage of overall business for R.C. Hatton Farms in Pahokee, the new statewide program has improved the company's volume and led to additional hiring, says co-owner Paul Allen. R.C. Hatton sells fresh corn and green beans to its school customers.
Florida ranks fourth in the number of public school students, behind California, Texas and New York. That's a market with growth potential, Allen says.
Try it, you'll like it
Nick Bergstrom, chief sales officer at Pero Family Farms in Delray Beach, points to a visit to an Orlando school, where the company chef and two fourth-grade students prepared eggplant meatballs and pasta during a cooking demonstration. Many of the students—even those who'd never seen or eaten eggplant—came back for seconds and thirds of the meatless dish.