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Federal school meal programs to boost produce companies’ bottom line

by Joan Murphy | July 28, 2011

WASHINGTON — Proposed federal school lunch rules that would double the number of fruit and vegetable servings made available to 4 million low-income children is likely to be a boon to produce suppliers, according to industry participants of a July 26 webinar sponsored by the United Fresh Produce Association.

More than 80 participants tuned in to the “Schools: A New Produce Sales Opportunity” webinar to get tips on how to navigate school districts and break into the growing market for federally supported school lunch, breakfast, and fruit and vegetable snack programs.

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials are poring over a 150-page summary of the 130,000 comments the agency received on the proposed school nutrition rule, said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition for United Fresh. A final rule is likely to be place by 2012.

She said that the USDA’s strict criteria for starchy vegetables that restricted white potato, corn and peas may become more flexible in the final rule.

But the webinar went beyond the Washington policy changes to explore the experiences of companies and a school official who negotiates school purchasing contracts every year.

Jessica Shelly, food service director for Cincinnati public schools, mapped out the produce items that schools want to purchase, the purchasing process and what she looks for in produce distributors.

Fifty-three of the city’s elementary schools now offer salad bars, and the school system looks for value-added, prepackaged products to avoid hefty labor costs, she said. Her school system also looks for good quality and value from produce companies, as well as twice-a-week delivery and low pricing.

Cincinnati is already implementing many of the changes the USDA is proposing when it increased portions of produce last year. The budget has ballooned from $525,000 in produce purchases last year to an estimated $1.5 million for various federally supported programs in the coming school year.

Ms. Shelly predicted that other school systems will be boosting produce purchases because of the salad bar program and the USDA’s final school nutrition rule.

Distributors need to build a relationship with school sales and customer service representatives, advised Phil Muir, president and chief executive officer of Muir Copper Canyon Farms, which supplies produce to schools in Utah and Wyoming.

The school program amounts to 10 percent of Muir Copper Canyon Farms’ total business through supplying the school lunch, breakfast and Department of Defense programs.

Mr. Muir shared his annual strategy of attending Utah school nutrition shows, working with the school districts during budget planning, and helping the schools with commodity research.

Building relationships with distributors who in turn have a relationship with schools is very important, said Tony Freytag, director of sales and marketing for Crunch Pak, a leading supplier of ready-to-eat apple slices.

“It’s important for suppliers like us who work on the national level to have that relationship,” he said.

Mr. Freytag said that the latest shift toward doubling the number of servings of fruits and vegetables in school meals also means that children will grow up to become lovers of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“It’s laying the groundwork for healthy eating to come,” he added.