School foodservice directors connect with Florida growers

School foodservice directors attending a major conference had a chance to meet and talk with some of the growers who produce the fruits and vegetables they serve their students.

Gee Roe cuts up and distributes pomello samples to school food service directors and others visiting Wm. G. Roe & Sons packinghouse.

Thanks to a school food service grant provided by the University of Florida’s Center for Public Issues Education in Agriculture and Natural Resources (the PIE Center), more than 20 food service directors, chefs and others attending the 2013 Industry Seminar, Commodity and Equipment Expo of the Florida School Nutrition Association visited Wm. G. Roe & Sons, known for its citrus and blueberries as well as the Noble premium juice line, and Mike Lott Farms, which has grown Florida strawberries for three decades. The group also attended a round-table discussion with four prominent industry members: Reggie Brown, head of the Florida Tomato Committee; Ted Campbell from the Florida Strawberry Growers Association; Jerry Mixon of berry company Sunnyridge/Dole, and Gary Wishnatzki of Wish Farms, a grower of strawberries, blueberries and vegetables.

Quentin Roe explains how citrus greening disease works.

At the Noble packinghouse in Winter Haven, Quentin and ‘Gee’ Roe gave the group a rundown of the history of the operation from the 1920s till today. They explained grading, Florida branding, USDA inspections and more. The group toured the Noble packinghouse to see tangerines being graded, washed and packed. The participants learned about pomelos and got one to take with them.  Quentin Roe also took the group through the operation’s cooler, where participants sampled clementines. He also explained citrus greening in a Valencia orange grove.

“Almost the entire state is affected by this disease,” he said. “Hundreds of millions of dollars a year are being spent to solve this problem. Greening is a lot like AIDS. It’s slow to start, but then it takes off.”

Roe explained that the disease prevents nutrients from reaching the roots of the tree. “We treat it with extra nutrients and water the groves frequently, but more is needed. We keep learning new things such as the need to remove infected trees from the grove. New trees don’t grow where the old soldiers are dying.”

Quentin Roe also told the group about research the company is doing to help the Florida blueberry industry. “We’re growing an experimental plot of blueberries in earth boxes to see if we can come up with an earlier growing season.  Right now, our market is from about April first till the middle of May. Even if we can extend that season for a few days, it’ll make a difference.”

A tour participant from Collier County told Roe that if he misses a market window, her district would be a willing buyer. “We’re flexible,” said Dawn Houser. “We can work with distributors to give you the price you’re looking for without the distributor marking it up.”

Strawberry grower Mike Lott (with granddaughter) gave tour participants a chance to learn how strawberries are grown, packed and shipped.

The group then traveled to Seffner to visit Lott’s strawberry farm. Lott discussed differences in the varieties he grows, how strawberries are grown and when. “We start getting ready in August,” Lott said. “We lay all new plastic every year in September and then we harvest from around Thanksgiving to Easter, depending on whether Easter is early or not. January through March is our busiest time,” he said.

“We hand-harvest the berries and pack them right at the field. Nothing is washed. You want to wash strawberries right before you eat them or the freshness is affected.”

The final stop for the tour was the roundtable discussion hosted by the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

Brown, Campbell, Mixon and Wishnatzki answered the groups’ questions and focused on the issue Dawn Houser brought up earlier. “We have had meetings with distributors and growers about putting a hub together that would bring produce the growers are looking for a home for to our schools,” she said. “We can help with all those things that make your lives challenging. When there’s an opportunity to buy, we’ll be there with our distributor to take that product off your hands and give you the price you want.”

Wishnatzki discussed the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Farm to  School program. “This is a great program,” he said. “But it needs tweaking. You have to protect yourself because of the higher lead times. It’s too open. We quote a price that ends up too low due to weather events or market conditions. There’s no commitment to get the price,” he said.

Industry leaders talk about connecting farms with schools during a panel discussion.

“DACS should have a way to monitor market prices,” Brown said.

A Leon County nutritionist said her district has the freezer space necessary to get saleable produce into the schools. “We can take a large quantity of food, process it and freeze it,” she said. “We do it for other school districts, too.”

Also discussed were portion sizes to help growers package items for the school market. “Half a cup is a portion,” several participants agreed.  And creative processing was another well-received idea from Wishnatzki, who suggested strawberry puree for smoothies.

“We are pleased to be collaborating with the University of Florida’s PIE Center as well as the Florida School Nutrition Association to bring the foodservice directors onto grower operations to be able to interact with them and ask questions,” said Sonia Tighe, executive director of the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation. “The tour was very interactive, and it pointed out the need for more communication between more groups.  We have grant funding to do this again next year,” she said.

According to Joy Rumber of the UF/IFAS Center for Public Issues Education, which administered the grant that made the tour possible, the purpose of the grant is to “use a case-study approach to identify the barriers and benefits of the farm-to-school program in order to develop a comprehensive tool to guide those involved (or those who want to be involved) in the farm-to-school process. The tool will be informed by a series of in-depth interviews with key players in the farm-to-school program, the bus tour observations and reflection, and document analysis. The end goal of the grant is to connect Florida-grown specialty crops to the school lunch program.”

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