Fresh-cut produce items are ready for their close-up at the July 14-17 School Nutrition Association annual national conference at Bartle Hall in Kansas City, Mo.

Packaged fruit and vegetable options have been a rising influence at the show, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the National Harbor, Md.-based association.

That trend is expected to be strengthened because of the “Smart Snacks in Schools,” which gives fruit and vegetables a hall pass to all U.S. schools as a healthy snack option. The U.S. Department of Agriculture appoved the rule June 27, she said.

All companies offering individual-sized fresh-cut fruits and vegetables have a chance to grow their sales to schools, Lorelei DiSogra, vice president for nutrition and health at the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., said. Some of the potential winners are fresh-cut apple slices, baby carrots, fresh fruit cups, pineapple spears and bananas, she said.

Fresh fruit and vegetable exhibitors at the school association conference include Chiquita Brands International, DNO Inc., Grimmway Farms, HMC Farms, NatureSeal Inc., Pear Bureau Northwest and The Mushroom Council.

Grab-and-go options like baby carrots, apple slices and grapes are already popular, and more fresh produce options are likely, Pratt-Heavner said.

“We always have a couple of vendors that are offering healthy vending options and actual machines as well,” she said.

Alex Dinovo, vice president of DNO Inc., Columbus, Ohio, said one challenge to putting fresh produce in school vending machines is that some of the more appealing fresh-cut produce items — such as pineapple spears — have a shorter shelf life. Fresh produce items also will cost more than processed items like chips.

Spencer Cox, president of Vending Services Inc., Des Moines, Iowa, said his company doesn’t have any school accounts. However, Cox said he feels the USDA approach of demanding all items in the vending machines to be healthy is sound. Otherwise, he said healthy items may spoil as kids pass over baby carrots to choose Pop Tarts or Snickers bars.

Lisa McNeece, vice president of foodservice and industrial sales at Grimmway Farms, Bakersfield, Calif., said she believes there is huge opportunity for produce suppliers of all kinds in schools. “If students are presented with the products and opportunities to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, they are definitely going to consume them,” she said. “If you teach them young, it will stay with them through their life,” she said.


Size of opportunity unknown

 USDA school food rule offers opportunityThough the school market shows every sign of growing, Tony Freytag, national marketing director for Cashmere, Wash.-based Crunch Pak, and chairman of the United Fresh fresh-cut board, said there is no definitive idea of how big the school market is right now for fresh produce suppliers.

Movement in general is up, but it is hard to say how much is attributable to schools, he said.

“If you are talking retail, you can go to (data provider Nielsen Perishables) and see what is happening, but when you talking about (school) foodservice there is no measurement,” he said.

“I have to believe there is a movement increase because of the schools,” he said.

Freytag said that Crunch Pak is getting a lot of calls from companies who service vending machines because those companies are looking for options to replace less healthful products that the vendors can no longer stock.

“Now they have this investment in the vending machine and some of their revenue generators are gone,” he said.

Crunch Pak plans to have representatives at the National Automated Merchandising Association annual conference so they can see what equipment can support fresh-cut apples.

The great thing about school vending machines is that they typically are serviced daily, which limits potential losses.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity in the coming years, and it is on our radar screen big time,” he said.