CHICAGO — Rising wage rates and greater emphasis on fruits and vegetables in school meals and in retail deli departments should provide fresh-cut produce suppliers growth opportunities.

Fresh-cut popularity in schools increasesThat’s the view of Bob Swartwout, proprietor of VNS Sales, Denton, Texas, and vice chairman of the United Fresh-Cut Processor Board. Swartwout and school foodservice officials spoke at a June 12 United Fresh workshop looking at expanding fresh-cut business opportunities with schools and alternative retail formats.

Swartwout said fresh-cut customers growing in importance include schools, convenience stores, retail delis, vending and the booming trend of food trucks.

“Food trucks have to buy fresh-cut; they don’t have the storage space,” he said.

At the retail level, Swartwout said the deli department is a new star customer for some fresh-cut processors. The deli can take foodservice packs like salads and also demand fresh-cut vegetable ingredients to pair with department staples for easy-to-prepare items. For example, cut peppers and onions are popular for fajitas and kabobs. Grab-and-go salads are increasingly used as impulse buys in every department. Fresh-cut produce also is used in combination with pasta and protein, and cut celery, carrots, onions are popular in crab and seafood salads. Even bakery departments are using items like diced onions for onion rolls and shredded carrots for carrot cake.

Minimum wage increases in certain states — he said Seattle recently approved an hourly wage rate of $15 per hour to be phased in over several years — is starting to push more customers to fresh-cut produce, Swartwout said.

“What you are going to see is another renaissance for fresh-cut produce for some the operations that may not be taking advantage of it now,” Swartwout said.

The workshop also included school foodservice officials who have had big success with fresh-cut produce.

Robert Lewis, director of foodservice, El Monte City School District, El Monte City, Calif., said his school district began creating healthier options about six years ago. The school district’s foodservice officials give taste tests to involve students in picking recipes. Menu planners also create color-themed lunches, such as yellow and purple produce for L.A. Lakers Day.

Federal meal regulations kicking in July 1 will mandate one cup of fruit for breakfast, three-quarters of a cup of vegetables and one-half cup of fruit for lunch, and three-quarters of a cup of vegetables or fruit for supper. The school district serves food three times a day, plus a midmorning fresh fruit and vegetable snack program.

The lunch period is supposed to last 20 minutes, but 10 minutes can be spent standing in line, he said. The U.S. needs longer lunch periods to help kids eat healthy, Lewis said.

Fresh-cut nectarines and peaches and sweet potato sticks are some of the new items many kids like, he said.

Lewis said the district has about an $8 million budget for the year, of which $4 million is spent on food. Of that $4 million, $1 million per year is spend on fresh produce.

Penny Parham, administrative director for the Department of Food and Nutrition at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, said the district — the fourth largest in the U.S. — has a $189 million budget. Parham said $73 million is spent on food, and $6.5 million is spent on 5 million pounds of fresh produce.

New federal school lunch standards have not resulted in more plate waste of fruits and vegetables than in the past, she said. The biggest food waste challenge has been milk in school meals, she said.

With rising wage rates and benefit costs for school employees, she said ready-to-eat meals are important and much needed. The district has installed 57 vending machines that can dispense school meals to high school students.

She urged suppliers to also provide quality produce.

“Kids are unforgiving,” she said. “If you give them a peach that’s hard like an apple, they won’t try the peach the next time around,” she said.

School foodservice officials also must be trained to serve produce at its peak flavor and quality, she said.