( Logo courtesy Southeast Produce Council )

The Southeast Produce Council’s Southern Exposure marks the start of another year of the Southeast Training Education Program for Upcoming Produce Professionals — also known as STEP-UPP.

The new class of students — 12 industry members on the buy side of the business — will kick off the year together at the event, starting with a dinner Feb. 27. 

The group, along with the STEP-UPP committee members, will then attend the conference’s educational sessions together Feb. 28. On the day of the expo, they will receive assignments and explore the trade show floor in teams.

“We are going to give them a commodity or an item and then (they’ll) go educate themselves about it, and so at the end of the expo we meet back as a group and we let them present their item and tell us what they learned about it,” said Mike Roberts, director of produce operations for Harps Food Stores and co-chairman of the STEP-UPP committee.

Roberts, who went through the program in 2012, said the experience for students at the show is a memorable one.

“The comments are always really good, enthusiastic, and year after year you have the past STEP-UPP students that are willing to give back and willing to help the next class when they see them at the expos,” Roberts said. 

“When you’re in the STEP-UPP at (Southern Exposure), you are a rock star. We’re all wearing the same shirts, and the vendor partners and growers and shippers, they all seek them out and talk to them.”

In the months following Southern Exposure, the students will go on a pair of field trips to learn more about grower operations and the produce industry supply chain. 

New this year, students will also receive a binder of information designed to give them a better understanding of the elements of a grower’s financial situation, from food safety to logistics to H-2A. 

The class will discuss these subjects during their times together, but the binder gives them a reference that is always accessible.

“We wanted something that they could study while they were in the program and then also have something they could put on their shelf in their office to refer to when they got back to their desks,” Roberts said. 

“The farmer’s P&L part, we really wanted people to know ... what’s the P&L look like for the guys that you’re maybe demanding a price for one day or saying, ‘Hey, I need this and I need it now.’

“We think that if they know that then there’s a better relationship between retailers and foodservice and the farmers and the vendors out there,” Roberts said. “They understand both sides.”

Roberts described Jake Parker, sales associate for Fresh Start Produce Sales, as instrumental in gathering information on those costs from several universities.

“That’s really going to just add an element to the STEP-UPP program, to make it one of the leading educational programs in the industry, and that is the goal of the STEP-UPP committee ... to really make sure these guys not only have a good time, get to network at the shows, get to bond with each other and form lifelong contacts and friendships, but to also leave the program with a greater knowledge of the business than they had going into it,” Roberts said.

STEP-UPP concludes with the graduation of the class at Southern Innovations, SEPC’s September event that focuses on organics and foodservice. 

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