Florida switches school meal oversight

03/15/2012 12:49:00 PM
Tom Karst

Joining Texas and New Jersey, Florida has become the third state to give responsibility of school meal oversight to the state department of agriculture.

Holding promise for more state produce in school meals, the transfer of oversight of the National School Lunch Program from the state’s department of education to the Florida Department of Agriculture fulfilled a campaign promise by Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

“By directing more fresh fruits and vegetables to our schools, we will help pave the way for healthier eating habits and active lifestyles among our youngest residents, creating a better and brighter Florida for generations to come,” Putnam said in a news release.

The release revealed the state received a three-year waiver from the USDA to allow state department of agriculture oversight. The USDA said it will periodically review the transition and administration of the program during the waiver period.

“From the standpoint of the growers, this is just a great development and it makes perfect sense,” said  Lisa Lochridge, director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland. “When you talk about pairing the educational piece of it and tying it to the school lunch program, it provides tremendous opportunities for growers.”

Lochridge said both growers and the state department of agriculture are still learning the workings of school lunch program at the district level.

“It is going to create powerful new market opportunities for growers, but it will be a process of getting there,” she said. “What the state team has found is the procurement process is different from district to district.”  Many districts don’t know the seasonality of Florida’s fruit and vegetable production, she said.

They didn’t know what fresh produce is available and when to buy it,” she said. Lochridge said the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association is working with the state team and supplying them with information about seasonal produce availability. “It is just a matter of educating people in charge of buying,” she said.

She said growers are excited about the opportunity to sell to school districts and learning more about what types of packages are required to deliver fruits and vegetables in a usable form.

“Both sides are willing to make this work,” Lochridge said. “School nutrition folks want to serve the most nutritious and tasteful food to the students and the growers community is very much looking forward to growing this new market.”

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