Prospects for increased fruit and vegetable purchases in schools may be the brightest they have ever been.

Besides produce’s positive image in helping to fight childhood obesity, it doesn’t hurt that the federal government has gotten behind produce in school in a huge way.

Schools provide growth opportunity for produce industry"If each school funded gets $20,000 to $30,000 for produce, that’s a new business opportunity for a local produce industry player in that region."

— Lorelei DiSogra

Funding for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which aims to provide a fresh produce snack for free every day at school, is set to increase incrementally from $49 million this past school year to $150 million for the 2011-12 school year.

Fresh produce funding

A set number of schools in each state are eligible for a designated amount of money to fund the program. Kansas, for example, is allotted more than $1 million next year.

“If each school funded gets $20,000 to $30,000 for produce, that’s a new business opportunity for a local produce industry player in that region,” said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

California’s allotment is more than $5 million.

The government funding has brought more school business to Seald Sweet International, Vero Beach, Fla., said Steve Marinello, foodservice sales manager.

As a result, there’s been increased interest among children in such citrus varieties as cara cara oranges, minneolas and clementines.

“These varieties have not normally gone to schools,” Marinello said.

“I’ve talked to parents around the country who have been educated by their children about varieties.”

DiSogra predicts that the increased funding in schools will lead to increased consumption overall as students influence their parents toward additional purchases.

The school snack food federal funding also has boosted sales for HMC Farms, Kingsburg, Calif., which is celebrating the 30-year anniversary of its Lunch Bunch grape bunches.

The company also promotes its 2-ounce packages of Grape Escape red grapes to schools as a healthy choice to meet the ½-cup daily fruit requirement for schools.

School snacks

Produce snack packs are better positioned now than ever to get into schools where the children’s market is, whether that be HMC’s Grape Escape grapes or Chiquita’s 2.8-ounce Pineapple Bites or Fruit Bites combining apples and grapes, said HMC Group Marketing Inc.’s vice president of sales and marketing Steve Kenfield.

“Snack products are getting better,” he said. “I think it’s going to be the 20-year overnight success story.

“Fruit is getting to where it needs to be to compete for that share of stomach with snack foods.”

The school snack program produce funds are available only to a small number of schools in each state.

An equal giant to conquer is changing the National School Lunch program funding and regulations to make it easier to get fresh produce in school lunches, DiSogra said.

Child Nutrition Act

She is working with others on the 2009 Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, which is legislation that reauthorizes school lunch and breakfast programs and makes necessary changes, she said.

It comes up for review every five years.

One of the anticipated changes is a new national school salad bar policy to encourage and train schools to offer salad bars to increase produce consumption.

Another change would increase the federal reimbursement rate for school lunches by 35 cents per student, which would make schools more likely to purchase more healthful food such as fresh fruits and vegetables, DiSogra said.

She added that if this and other requested changes are approved, it will open additional business to the produce industry.

“Salad bars are a top priority — trying to get one in each school, and not just lettuce. It’s a huge opportunity,” she said.

This article was featured in The Packer's annual Foodservice section, published June 29. For more stories about the foodservice sector, visit www.thepacker.com/foodservice.