CERRITOS, Calif. — School cafeterias are creating new business opportunities for every segment of the produce industry, Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for United Fresh Produce Association, told several dozen produce suppliers and others during a Dec. 12 workshop.

Workshop explores school foodservice needsBy capitalizing on the new U.S. Department of Agriculture school nutrition regulations and the push for salad bars in schools, the industry can come out ahead in terms of increased sales while fighting childhood obesity and improving students’ health, she said.

DiSogra was joined by representatives of five Southern California school districts and a produce supplier at the workshop on Opportunities to Drive Produce Sales to Schools.

The event was co-hosted by the La Mirada-based Fresh Produce & Floral Council.

High demand, changes in marketing

Everyone must “jump into the trenches together” to help boost consumption of fruits and vegetables, DiSogra said.

Demand for produce is being driven at the school level by policy changes, such as the new school nutrition regulations, new funding, the addition of more salad bars in schools and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, she said.

Nationwide, 101,000 schools are implementing the new USDA standards, DiSogra said.

Schools that comply receive an extra 6 cents per meal.

California alone will receive $11 million for the current school year, and nationwide, more than 7,000 schools will share $163.5 million, she said.

“There is a very huge change in school lunches,” DiSogra said.

Representatives from five school districts told workshop participants how they’re trying to boost produce consumption.

“It’s all about marketing,” said Robert Lewis, director of foodservices for the El Monte City School District.

He described how he replaced the concept of baby carrots with “X-ray vision carrots” to appeal to younger students.

The district incorporates nutrition and health education into existing courses — such as social studies and language arts — holds special events like kids cooking camps and chef in the classroom, and sponsors nutrition advisory clubs.

Schools buy local

The Lynwood Unified School District holds farmers markets twice a year at each of the district’s nine elementary schools, said Cathy Tang, director of child nutrition services.

Students are given $2 worth of coupons and allowed to buy whatever fruits or vegetables they want.

The district, which has seen product consumption triple since 2008, also offers free morning snacks.

The Rio School District, Oxnard, is in the heart of berry country, and Laurel Goins, foodservice supervisor, said 25% of the parents are migrant farmworkers or work in produce processing plants, so she likes to buy locally.

She said 70 cents of each dollar spent stays in the local community.

School districts make good customers, she said, because they pay their bills on time and “they’re not going anywhere.”

Kara Muniz, director of foodservices for the Hueneme Elementary School District, Port Hueneme, described what she looks for in a produce supplier.

Her criteria include access to local/seasonal produce, frequent — even daily — deliveries, great customer service, prices that reflect seasonality, quality produce and sharing farmers’ profiles.

She also said she wants open communication with suppliers, weekly updates on seasonal produce and immediate correction when bad produce arrives.

Hemet Unified School District has done away with packaged or wrapped produce, said Brad Knipscheer, director of nutrition services.

“I couldn’t understand why we were hiding the food,” he said.

Unwrapped fruits and vegetables look more appealing, take less time to prepare and eliminate waste, he said.

The district serves 22,000 meals a day.

Russell Boyd, director of sales for Sunrise Produce, Commerce, which supplies produce to the Rio and Hueneme districts, said Sunrise fills the role of consultant as well as distributor by guiding the districts and helping them stay on budget and achieve their goals.

The workshop was at the Sheraton Cerritos hotel.