Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor With Florida the second-leading U.S. fresh produce producing state, many wonder why there isn’t a larger volume of Florida produce served to children through schools.
It’s particularly perplexing since grower-shippers produce during the fall to summer school session.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services took authority over the state’s child nutrition programs in January and is trying to place more fresh produce in schools by unifying two systems that don’t communicate with each other.
School districts don’t understand farming and growers don’t understand the schools’ procurement system and the segment’s potential volume, said Robin Safley, director of the department’s division of food, nutrition and wellness.
The first bid it issued in September for 10 products taught the agency much about how it can improve the process, unify measures and consolidate different product ordering specifications, which should help growers meet the demand for the 2.5 million children fed through the programs each school day, Safley said.
One district might request a 5-pound bag of whole product while another may spec a 10-pound value-added bag.
Though many Florida districts buy through cooperatives for processed foods and paper products, most procure produce independently.
Instituting common ordering and pushing products based on harvest times could add more produce in the cafeterias, Safley said.
Last year’s unseasonably warm strawberry season, which saw more Mexican product entering earlier than normal, produced a glut.
The agency notified districts about availability and schools in Pinellas County, home of Clearwater and St. Petersburg, the western part of the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area, served strawberries in all its elementary and middle schools.
That generated interest, attracted television news coverage and helped move the berries, Safley said.
Safley said the state could help blueberry growers, who normally finish retail sales in late April, extend their season by selling the remaining berries to school districts through May and could help growers better utilize their labor, she said.
“It’s a very complicated system in many ways,” Safley said. “It has lots of moving parts, especially when dealing with fresh produce.
“If we focus on creating the market, like getting the schools organized and putting demand on the product, I have faith the farming, distributing and processing communities will start working themselves out and start identifying those issues quickly and create a solution.”