Putting more local fruits and vegetables on the plates of Florida's school children is getting a boost through a statewide program that consolidates and simplifies purchasing.

Run through the Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Department, the Farm to School Program introduced for the 2012-2013 academic year also incorporates educational material linked to a Florida-grown produce item of the week.

Previous efforts in state schools didn't match the potential of Florida's abundant produce offerings, says Robin Safley, director of the Agriculture Department's Division of Food Nutrition and Wellness.

"There were pockets of success," Safley says. "But not on the scale you'd expect, especially with the way the growing season meshes with the school year."

A common produce menu

One obstacle was a fragmented market where each school district set menus and purchased produce independently, complicating the process for suppliers and customers alike, she says. The solution was to create a common produce menu, based on seasonal availability, with the state's 67 districts.

This year's featured produce started with okra, squashes and eggplant in the fall, highlighted tangerines before Christmas, and moved into cantaloupe, watermelon and blueberries in the spring. Schools help introduce unfamiliar items such as okra with taste tests and "I tried it" stickers.

Each district chooses how to prepare the featured item. But the common push includes educational posters of the Florida-grown and nutritional aspects, flyers with recipes for parents, and classroom exercises for elementary schools, she says.

Coordinating menus also allows for more bulk purchases of major staple menu items, such as potatoes and corn, reducing the bite on school budgets and creating a more stable market for growers, Safley says.

Although school purchases currently comprise a small percentage of overall business for R.C. Hatton Farms in Pahokee, the new statewide program has improved the company's volume and led to additional hiring, says co-owner Paul Allen. R.C. Hatton sells fresh corn and green beans to its school customers.

Florida ranks fourth in the number of public school students, behind California, Texas and New York. That's a market with growth potential, Allen says.

Try it, you'll like it

Nick Bergstrom, chief sales officer at Pero Family Farms in Delray Beach, points to a visit to an Orlando school, where the company chef and two fourth-grade students prepared eggplant meatballs and pasta during a cooking demonstration. Many of the students—even those who'd never seen or eaten eggplant—came back for seconds and thirds of the meatless dish.

"If students are willing to try an eggplant and enjoy it, we can only imagine the endless opportunities," Bergstrom says.

Another school district noted a significant jump in student dining when chicken fajitas with Pero's Fresh Fajita Mix of sliced peppers and onions were on the menu, he says.

Fresh green beans in field-trimmed 5-pound packs are one item that Pinellas County schools have added thanks to the new program, says Art Dunham, the district's director of foodservice.

Previously, his cafeterias used only canned or frozen beans.

The fresh beans, with their appealing dark green color, turn up in salads, stir fries and other dishes, Dunham says.

When featuring strawberries, he says, "We brought in flats and flats and buried the students in strawberries." Menu items included chocolate-dipped strawberries, strawberry cupcakes and strawberries in salads.

Students "can tell when it comes right off the farm," he says.

 What's available locally?

 Carol Chong, director of food and menu management at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, says the program pointed her to new avenues for locally grown produce, a sometimes challenging goal for the state's largest district.

She needs 300,000 portions of whatever's on the menu.

Smaller growers may need to partner with a larger operation or—as local starfruit growers did to match the district's needs—band together to make up sufficient volume.

The new program also has opened her eyes to what might be available locally.

"I never knew blueberries were grown in Florida," she says. "We can take advantage of fruit in season that's sweeter and fresher."

And for some high-use items, the statewide bidding process has lowered costs.

"Some things have to be done at a very local level," Chong says. "But this does assist us in getting as competitive as possible or increasing our variety."

Serving costs are an ongoing concern for tight budgets.

Dunham says that adding more fresh, local produce to menus does cost more overall, but that's offset by selling greater numbers of more appealing meals.

Safley says on average, the state's districts are saving a penny or two per serving. "That matters to a district," she says.

Additional funding of 6 cents per serving to help cover higher costs will kick in as schools meet new federal nutrition guidelines, she says.

Florida's efforts provide a win for all parties in the farm-to-school equation, Bergstrom says. Pero's school sales have grown over the years as more districts buy more products – and opportunities are open to operations of all sizes.

Growers should make the state Agriculture Department their first stop for information about participating. "They've taken out a lot of the learning curve," Allen says.

Safley says her department also will guide growers if they lack the required certifications and audits for the program, and help connect them to other growers or processing facilities to better meet school needs.

"We still have a lot to learn," she says.

The program is evolving, starting with an already implemented change into seven smaller regions for smoother transportation.

Coming this summer is a beta test of an online program to match growers' products and customer needs. Modeled on the University of Illinois' MarketMaker site, she hopes for a full launch in the fall.

"This is new territory for all of us," Chong says.

She encourages growers to work with her on how best to participate.

"Two heads are better."