Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor
Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor

With Florida the second-leading U.S. fresh produce producing state, many wonder why there isn’t a larger volume of Florida produce served to children through schools.

It’s particularly perplexing since grower-shippers produce during the fall to summer school session.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services took authority over the state’s child nutrition programs in January and is trying to place more fresh produce in schools by unifying two systems that don’t communicate with each other.

School districts don’t understand farming and growers don’t understand the schools’ procurement system and the segment’s potential volume, said Robin Safley, director of the department’s division of food, nutrition and wellness.

The first bid it issued in September for 10 products taught the agency much about how it can improve the process, unify measures and consolidate different product ordering specifications, which should help growers meet the demand for the 2.5 million children fed through the programs each school day, Safley said.

One district might request a 5-pound bag of whole product while another may spec a 10-pound value-added bag.

Though many Florida districts buy through cooperatives for processed foods and paper products, most procure produce independently.

Instituting common ordering and pushing products based on harvest times could add more produce in the cafeterias, Safley said.

Last year’s unseasonably warm strawberry season, which saw more Mexican product entering earlier than normal, produced a glut.

The agency notified districts about availability and schools in Pinellas County, home of Clearwater and St. Petersburg, the western part of the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area, served strawberries in all its elementary and middle schools.

That generated interest, attracted television news coverage and helped move the berries, Safley said.

Beyond strawberries

Safley said the state could help blueberry growers, who normally finish retail sales in late April, extend their season by selling the remaining berries to school districts through May and could help growers better utilize their labor, she said.

“It’s a very complicated system in many ways,” Safley said. “It has lots of moving parts, especially when dealing with fresh produce.

“If we focus on creating the market, like getting the schools organized and putting demand on the product, I have faith the farming, distributing and processing communities will start working themselves out and start identifying those issues quickly and create a solution.”

Safley said such a program wouldn’t require smaller growers to invest in value-added equipment.

She said larger growers with processing equipment could contract with smaller growers to grow the additional products and small growers could form cooperatives as some in Palatka, Fla., are doing to serve the segment, Safley said.

Districts can’t accept 15 crates of fresh produce because their narrow margins wouldn’t allow the additional labor needed to clean, dice and prepare the produce, she said.

R.C. Hatton Farms, Pahokee, Fla., which markets its corn and beans through Hugh H. Branch Inc., lowered a bid by $5 on its corn cobbettes when it expanded its sales to Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Orange counties.

Safley said Hatton and Pero Family Farms, Delray Beach, Fla., were trailblazers in selling produce to south Florida school districts.

“The farm-to-school program goes much further than sales and transactions of commodities to school systems,” said Nick Bergstrom, Pero’s chief sales officer.

“It’s a lot of opportunities for interaction between the farmers and the schools where growers are able to reach out and help with the educational process and have interaction with the children in the schools about what farming is.”

The state is helping drive the initiative and is making sure schools are a viable marketplace for growers to plan for, Bergstrom said.

Sound distribution partnerships can make those kinds of programs successful for other states as well, he said.

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