Schools offer huge opportunitiesWASHINGTON, D.C. — Changes in school nutrition standards translate to big opportunities for produce marketers.

During a workshop at the United Fresh Produce Association’s Washington Public Policy Conference called “Growing kids consumption — growing new consumers,” Lorelei DiSogra, United Fresh’s vice president of nutrition and health, said school menus are a great sales opportunity.

Her claim was backed up by school foodservice officials on the Oct. 1 panel, who said that fresh produce purchases have nearly doubled in the past year.

Dennis Christou, vice president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A., spoke to an overflow crowd about the opportunity for fresh produce vending machines in schools. Christou said vending machines with fresh produce near athletic facilities have done especially well. The number of fresh produce vending machines supplied by Del Monte has increased from 10 to 50 in the New York City School District, he said.

Because of policy changes and increased demand at schools, fresh produce has become central to Ontario, Calif.-based Gold Star Foods’ strategy. said Sean Leer, vice president of sales. Gold Star supplies the Los Angeles school district, and fresh produce went from zero to 18% of sales from 2011 to 2013.

DiSogra said nutrition policy changes are being implemented in schools that have been in the works for many years, and that has resulted in new opportunities for produce operators.

The change in the school lunch menu in the 2012-13 school year and upcoming policy changes coming in July 2014, including different breakfast standards and snacks available at schools, represent opportunities for increased demand, DiSogra said. In the 2014-15 academic year, schools will have to serve twice the amount of fruit in breakfast meals compared to current requirements.

One cup of fruit has to be served at school breakfast next years, and DiSogra said in most cases that will include a combination of juice and fruit, whereas in the past schools may have offered only juice.

Also taking effect next July, DiSogra said USDA established new standards for all foods and beverages sold in schools, including vending machines, snack bars and a la carte lines.

“It is a huge opportunity to get more produce in schools,” she said.

Marla Caplon, director of child nutrition for the Montgomery County (Maryland) School District, said the district serves 70,000 meals in 202 schools every day.

In the 2012-13 school year, the district spent about $1.37 million on fresh produce, up from $793,000 the previous year.

Caplon said the district needs prepackaged fruit to provide a quick-and-easy option for breakfasts. The district is looking for options like grapes in a bag, cut grapefruit, cut oranges, sliced apples in bags or a mixture of the two fruits together in a bag.

Calling salad bars the most valuable piece of equipment in school kitchens, Jessica Shelly, food services director, Cincinnati Public Schools, said they have been a core strategy to meet updated nutrition standards.

“When you offer kids a choice, if you empower them and trust them to make a decision, they will surprise you with what they take — and they love it,” she said.

With the support of produce companies and the Salad Bars to Schools campaign, 53 salad bars were provided to Cincinnati schools at no cost to the district.

She said industry donations (to put salad bars in schools) are helping to transform school lunches.

“As the message gets out there on how beneficial salad bars are to kids, and how it benefits our enterprise programs, people are listening,” she said.

Strong demand from schools is pulling along fresh produce suppliers, said Phil Muir, president and chief executive officer of Muir Copper Canyon Farms, Salt Lake City.

The funding increase for the Department of Defense Fresh Program has risen by 265% in the past 12 years, while the funding for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program has jumped by 2,700%, he said. Muir Copper Canyon’s sales of fresh produce to schools have increased 800% since 2006, he said.