Twin Cities distributors set sights on schools - The Packer

Twin Cities distributors set sights on schools

05/20/2011 11:07:00 AM
Dan Gailbraith

A demand for slimmer kids appears to indicate fatter sales for produce vendors in the Twin Cities.

The trend is benefiting St. Paul-based J&J Distributing Inc., which operates a small retail store called The Produce Exchange in downtown St. Paul.

“We’re dedicating all sorts of new people to that all the time because it’s growing really, really fast from all directions, from schools to caterers to major national operations that we’re partnering with,” said Kevin Hannigan, executive vice president of executive director of operations with J&J Distributing Inc.

School districts are getting particularly active in looking for fresh produce, Hannigan said.

“Schools are going with a lot of local and co-op buying,” he said.

“They operate very differently and have a lot of different values. They’re active about getting more fresh produce to kids like crazy. The salad bar program is really strong in St. Paul. We have something like 21 schools that took salad bars. We’re a pilot program.”

Minneapolis-based fresh-cut processor and distributor G.O. Fresh Inc. is seeing increased opportunities with older students, said Ryan Tonolli, sales and marketing director.

“One of the exciting things we’re seeing, whether it’s secondary schools or colleges, and also restaurants, is the healthy-eating trend, because that’s what we sell,” Tonolli said. “We’re exploring different ways to deliver the product, whether different-sized portions or different-sized cuts. I think this recent trend, the sky’s the limit on what we can bring to the market.”

College students like the convenience, as well as the nutritional content, he said.

“We’re looking for a lot of the grab-and-go, which I think are in high demand,” he said.

School-related business is bound to increase, Tonolli added.

“I think with the recent government funding we’ve found for fresh produce, schools definitely have a focus in that area,” he said.

Cloquet, Minn.-based Upper Lakes Foods Inc., which opened a distribution center in Northfield, Minn., two years ago, is active in “farm-to-school” programs in schools, said Mike McLeod, produce manager.

“One thing I’ve noticed is the growth in farm to school,” he said.

“We’re seeing a lot of that and people using that. We’ve been doing it for two or three years, and next year, we’re looking to just blow the top off of it.”

The farm-to-school program uses all locally grown produce, he added.

“We work with local growers,” McLeod said.

“There are some facilities we buy from, anyway. We take a good price and a good product on smaller-sized apples and get a locked-in price. We’ve done different varieties of apples. They go to the booking and the school will come back and tell us how many they want. We go to the farm and lock it in and make deliveries.”

It’s affordable, as well, McLeod said.

“Usually, we’re getting a better price than what they’re paying, anyway, so we pass a lot of that savings right on to the school and give them all the information they want,” he said.

Kids can feed their minds, as well as their stomachs, he said.

“Some schools are actually talking about the farm and where it came from and turning it into a lesson plan,” he said.

The company is working with about 15 school districts in the Twin Cities region this year, McLeod said.

“Schools and health care have been nice and steady,” he said.

School business works for both buyer and seller, said Don Roper, vice president of sales and marketing for Wescott Agri Products, an apple grower based in Elgin, Minn.

“That business is growing,” he said. “What it probably does is help remove some of the smaller fruit from the marketplace. But from a grower’s perspective, you get a better return on bigger fruit.”

But, he emphasized, it’s not a dominant revenue stream.

“You’re not going to reinvest in orchards based on your school business,” he said.



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