School nutrition program boosts Georgia produce sales

09/02/2011 09:11:00 AM
Dan Gailbraith

Distributors, foodservice suppliers and local growers in Georgia are cashing in on a revenue stream that industry and government leaders say shows no indications of drying up.

In fact, on a nationwide basis, the stream is more than three times bigger this year than it was in 2008.

It’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program for schools, which is receiving $158 million for the 2011-12 school year. For the 2008-09 school year, the program had a nationwide budget of just $49 million.

For Georgia, the USDA allocated just less than $4 million for the current school year, up from $2.7 million for the 2010-11 school year.

Industry leaders have been encouraging those in produce to pursue contracts with schools, especially since first lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to improve nutrition and reduce childhood obesity have been making headlines.

School nutrition business is picking up for Dexter’s Farm, Buford, Ga., chief operating officer Lane Westfall said.

The past two to three years have seen increased business and interest in fresh produce that doesn’t show any indication of declining, he said.

Dexter’s supplies a number of Georgia school districts, including the Gwinnette School District, the DeKalb County District and the Gainesville School District.

The company does a lot of farm-to-school business, even though the program is loosely organized, Westfall said.

“Schools are at the ground level in the locally grown movement,” Westfall said. “We are looking to expand our opportunities with school nutrition programs and share those opportunities with small growers.”

Dexter’s got a bit of a boost this school year when the Georgia Department of Education approved three schools in the Gainesville School District for the program.

The district is receiving $116,000 of USDA money for the three schools, which means about $52 per student will be spent on the program in those schools, according to Tiffany Lommel, the district’s director of school nutrition.

“The program is really good for children in cities because they don’t have the opportunity to see or eat as much fresh produce as kids in rural settings,” said Lommel, who grew up on a farm. “I was able to watch produce grow from seed to fruit.”

In addition to providing fresh produce snacks, the program provides classroom materials to help teachers explain the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables.

In Cobb County School District in Kennesaw, Ga., Royal Food Service of Atlanta has a special program this year featuring Georgia-grown produce.

Kelley Dodgson, district spokeswoman, said each month a different fresh fruit or vegetable grown in Georgia will be highlighted in school cafeterias.

In October, apples from Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge, Ga., will be the spotlight produce.

“The farm-to-school focus will not only highlight the produce, but the farm of origin,” Dodgson said.



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