Ron Carkoski, Four Seasons Family of Cos.
Ron Carkoski, Four Seasons Family of Cos.

This week, work is underway to provide solutions for schools that are working to provide more fresh produce to kids.

From my vantage point as chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, I have a front-row seat for seeing how United’s years of pioneering work on school nutrition strategies are paying off in terms of increased consumption.

We’re improving how kids in this country eat at school. The new standards call for half a cup of fruits/vegetables at lunch for 32 million students who participate in the National School Lunch Program.

That’s a huge impact, but implementing this change can require new thinking for menu planning, procurement, logistics, preparation and more.

While 90% of participating schools say they’re getting the job done, others are voicing concerns about meeting this important nutritional standard for our children. You’ve probably seen news in The Packer and elsewhere about possible legislation to grant waivers to schools that can’t meet the standard.

United, USDA and our school nutrition allies firmly oppose any attempt to delay or water down these nutritional requirements. Instead, we’re working to help schools get it done.

On July 10 I traveled to Washington, D.C., to represent United Fresh at a top-level meeting with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to discuss how we make the most of the upgraded school meal standards.

Leaders from more than a dozen organizations representing nutritional and educational interests also attended, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Heart Association, National Education Association, National Parent Teacher Organization, National School Board Association, Pew Charitable Trusts and the School Nutrition Organization.

Sam Kass, executive director of Let’s Move! and senior policy adviser for nutrition was there as well.

We sincerely appreciate USDA’s coordination of this important discussion and its steadfast support for the modern school meal standards.

The message from Vilsack was clear: USDA is committed to helping schools provide half a cup of fruits or vegetables to kids at lunch. By working together, he said, we can help ensure that every school in the National School Lunch Program meets the standard and thereby improves access to healthful fresh produce for our kids.

If any schools are struggling to meet the nutrition standards, it’s unacceptable, and that was why USDA coordinated the discussion.

But it was clear that everyone involved was as dedicated and impassioned as all of us in the produce industry are about doing what’s right for our kids’ health and wellness.

I had a feeling that I was witnessing history — a milestone in how our industry and our allies can help shape the wellness of future generations, and introduce future consumers to the great tastes of fresh produce by providing solutions to schools working to meet the meal standards.

Solutions are what schools need, and that’s why the United Fresh Foundation is spearheading a first-of-its-kind produce industry presence at the School Nutrition Association’s national conference in Boston, July 13-16.

The conference attracts thousands of school nutrition officials from across the country, so it’s a perfect opportunity for face-to-face education and dialogue about improving access to fresh produce in schools.

The United Fresh Produce Pavilion features exhibits by several United Fresh member companies and an educational learning area for school foodservice directors.

The Foundation’s learning area is co-sponsored by Pro*Act, which is bringing several produce distribution experts to serve as consultants for schools to answer all their produce-related questions, share guidance and tips for writing produce request for proposals, and promote the wide variety of fresh and fresh-cut fruits and vegetables that are ideal for school foodservice.

Of course, United is featuring salad bars as a strategy for increasing access to fruits and vegetables in school meals, as well as snacking options to comply with the new Smart Snacks in Schools standards that go into effect next school year.

There’s even a fresh produce vending machine on display.

What’s more, United, produce industry members and nutrition authorities are leading educational sessions at the SNA conference designed to help schools work with produce distributors to meet the standards, provide quality and variety and stay on budget in the process.

I can’t help but be proud that United Fresh and our entire industry are making a very real impact on the school food environment by offering solutions to schools as they meet these new standards.

If this opportunity isn’t already on your radar, I encourage you to get engaged.

After all, the USDA’s dietary guidance calls for making half your plate fruits and vegetables, and I think ensuring our kids get half a cup of fresh produce at school is a great place to start.

Ron Carkoski is chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association and president and CEO of Ephrata, Pa.-based Four Seasons Family of Cos.

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