School districts work together on common menus to maximize nutrition programs

Since Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services took on the state’s school nutrition programs 15 months ago, much has been happening.

During the first year several initiatives were launched, says Robin Safley, director of the school food and nutrition programs for DACS’ Division of Food, Nutrition and Wellness, which was created to oversee the programs. Among them has been a focus on helping National School Lunch Program participants implement the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 as well as a focus on expanding Farm to School initiatives in Florida.

State lawmakers in 2011 moved the school nutrition programs from the Department of Education to DACS. The transfer is effective for three years, during which time USDA is monitoring the programs’ progress. The transfer is to be extended if the programs succeed under DACS.

The Farm to School effort helps bring more quality, locally grown, seasonal and fresh Florida produce to schools at the best possible price.  To accomplish this goal, the Food, Nutrition and Wellness Division established a statewide procurement bid for fresh fruits and vegetables based on Florida’s crop harvesting schedule.  Because the state’s eight-month growing season coincides with the school year, the program provides an opportunity to support local growers and help school districts get the freshest product at the most economical price.

“We have learned a lot along the way about the nuances of marrying up the farmers with food service providers. The farmers have given us great feedback,” Safley said. “So each time we go out to bid, it becomes a better instrument.  Although we believe there is still a lot of work to be done, the last school year has been incredibly successful in raising the level of conversation and awareness around Farm to School. We are in a position to have an even stronger program in the next school year,” she said.

Now approaching its third statewide solicitation of fresh Florida produce, the department is working to assist school district personnel and Florida growers use the Farm to School programs. One solicitation, for product available through April and May, was the largest solicitation to date, incorporating 17 varieties of Florida produce. Growers had an opportunity to bid for blueberries, broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupe, celery, corn, cucumber, lettuce, oranges, peaches, peppers, potatoes, snap beans, spinach, squash, tomatoes and watermelon.

A recent solicitation to bid can be found here.

A key component to the success of the Farm to School effort is effective communication and understanding the needs of its program participants. Safley’s team surveyed the school districts throughout Florida to determine potential demand for seasonal products. A common menu of seasonal produce was established. Each week, school districts are asked to feature a Florida-grown product in their classrooms and school cafeterias. Those featured items are incorporated into lesson plans, cafeteria menus and other educational material for students and parents. The lineup of featured produce is designed to follow the Florida harvesting timeline.

The common menu is based on a “Weekly Featured Florida Produce by Month.” Examples are:

April 8             Blueberries

April 15          Cantaloupe

April 22          Watermelon

April 29          Sweet Corn

May 6             Potatoes

May 13           Peppers

May 20           Watermelon             

“There are many benefits and opportunities to having common menus,” Safley said. “The ability to plan ahead helps farmers anticipate what produce to grow and in what quantity.  This may even influence the crops they choose to grow and increase opportunities for farmers throughout the state.”

Using a statewide bid system to buy produce for the common menu schedule also can increase the purchasing power of each program participant. Participants become reliable buyers with steady demand and volume from season to season. Growers see the benefits of working to provide the best products at the best pricing.

“Watching the FDACS farm to school program grow has been exciting,” said grower Paul Allen of RC Hatton Farms. “We were an active farm to school program participant before FDACS took it over as a state initiative. I have never seen a program administered by a government agency that has been ran as efficient as Adam Putnam, Robin Safely and team has run this one. They are tremendous in their organizational skills and Robin understands what it takes to make things happen,” said Allen.

Although the statewide procurement process is overseen by Food, Nutrition and Wellness Division staff, the actual purchasing is conducted directly by each participating school district from local farmers or through current contracted distributors. To help improve communication among those groups, the division is exploring ways that a program participant may connect with local farmers through the new Fresh from Florida Kids “Rooted for Life” website.  The division also is working on a new, improved Farm to School section where growers can make schools aware of additional in-season produce and sponsors can list their needs.  Continued strong communication via the website and directly among the sponsors, farmers, and parents will be the keys to success for Florida’s Farm to School program, Safley said.

Educational materials are also an important part of Florida’s Farm to School effort. The opportunity to build education around featured locally grown Florida produce can lead to more consumption in school and at home.  Research shows that the more children know about their food, the more likely they are to try something new.  Safley’s team has implemented several messaging opportunities around the featured produce of the week.  In cafeterias during the 2012-2013 school year, posters are displayed featuring vibrant photographs of the weekly produce along with interesting facts about where, how, and when the produce is grown.  In addition, similar fliers are available in schools to send home with students. The posters and fliers include produce trivia and locations of product availability. They feature chef-inspired, kid-tested recipes using the featured produce.  Finally, nutrition educational materials are available for classroom use and were created using the most up-to-date educational standards.

There are more opportunities for schools to increase awareness of Florida-grown fruits and vegetables, including highlighting the featured produce on the school menus, talking about the featured produce in morning announcements, creating contests around recipes, having students write food journals, and encouraging them to try new produce every week at home and in the cafeteria. Safley says the division will continue to work on ways to promote connections between schools, local farmers, and chefs to increase educational experiences offered to Florida school children.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” she said. “We’re working on all aspects of the program with the farmers, the distributors and the school districts.” To that end, she and her team are scheduling meetings in May with farmers and distributors to talk about “where the program has been, what worked and what didn’t, its many challenges, and then start solving those for next year,” she said.

To find out more about participating in the meetings or if you have questions about the Farm to School program, contact Erica Field via email at Erica.Field@freshfromflorida.com  or at 850-617-7441. Learn more about Farm to School on the program’s website.

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