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What began 15 years ago as a way to test market strawberries grown in North Carolina has now expanded into a school food program that posted over a million dollars in sales of fresh fruits and vegetables from North Carolina farmers during the 2011-12 school year. And the program teaches students about eating fresh fruits and vegetables.
By Kelsey Tsipis
Tom Nixon, a 5th grader at Penny Road Elementary School in Cary, looks forward to lunch period with his friends everyday around noon. Nixon didn’t know, however, that much of the fruits and vegetables he’s served during lunch period are grown close to where he lives in Cary, North Carolina.
“I think that’s very cool to have it grown in the area,” said Nixon, who is 10-years-old. “It motivates us to eat more of it.”
Since it’s creation in 1997 by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services Food Distribution and Marketing Divisions and the U.S. Department of Defense Produce Merchandising Office, the North Carolina Farm to School program has put fresh, local produce on the lunch trays of millions of students, like Nixon, across North Carolina.
The program served more than 1 million students just last year, up from 900,000 students in the 2010-11 school year.
The program began by testing the market for strawberries grown in North Carolina. Now, 15 years later, the program has posted more than $1.2 million in sales of fresh fruits and vegetables during the 2011-12 school year.
Under the program, school systems across the state can order fresh North Carolina produce, which is coordinated and transported to schools by the NCDA&CS Food Distribution and Marketing divisions.
“It has continued to grow each year, and last year we saw 14 new school districts participate,” said Gary Gay, the Director of Food Distribution.
Nearly 1,600 schools participated in the Farm to School program during the 2011-12 school year, ordering more than 1.5 million pounds of fresh North Carolina produce. Of the 117 school districts in the state, 85 are currently participating.
Some of the reasons schools don’t participate include lack of refrigeration or warehouse space and transportation, said Heather Barnes, the Marketing Specialist for the program. The program will only bring the produce to one spot in the district, and that can be a problem.
“The cost is also a factor for a lot of schools,” said Barnes. “Fresh produce is more expensive and they have to have enough staff to be able to prepare the food.”
However, the program has no minimum purchase amounts for the 23 weeks they deliver a year, so schools can order as much, or as little, as they can afford.
Among the biggest sellers were apple slices, strawberries and blueberries.
Other farm-fresh produce offered include apples, blueberries, broccoli crowns, cabbage, cantaloupes, collards, cucumbers, peaches, romaine lettuce, squash, sprite melons, strawberries, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons and zucchini.
“The program is a vital resource for our state’s schools, said Gay. “We’re getting our young citizens to eat North Carolina produce and get the nutritional benefits.”
North Carolina currently ranks number 11 in the country for childhood obesity, with more than 30 percent of children between the ages of 10-17 who are overweight or obese.
The program allows for NCDA&CS Food Distribution Division to work with the Child Nutrition Directors across the state to see what items of produce the school cafeterias can utilize.
As the various produce items come into season, Food Distribution sends out order forms to the school districts to verify quantities needed then utilizes its fleet of tractor-trailers to pick up the produce and deliver it to the school systems.
“We’ve heard from parents that their children are asking to get North Carolina apples and fruits from the grocery store because that’s what they have at school,” said Gay. “That makes us really happy. That means we’re getting the information to families and really making a difference.”
Gay says the response from the 20 participating farmers has also been very positive.
“We’ve gotten great feedback from the farmers as well,” said Gay. “They’re not going to live off selling just to us but we’re one piece of the pie.”
To ensure the strictest of food safety, any potential participating farmers much have GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification and ten million dollars of liability insurance. Gay says most farmers already had it although some farmers had to opt out of the program because they couldn’t afford it.
The program is now working with schools formulating recipes on how to prepare the produce.
“We’re working on creating a cookbook to meet the needs of each district because we had schools getting vegetables like kale and not knowing how to prepare it,” said Barnes.
Barnes also works with schools to promote what they’re doing within the program with posters and educational pamphlets starring famous North Carolina athletes for the students. The program also works to promote school field trips to some of the participating farms.
As the program continues to grow, Gay says the department will continue to work on ways to bring local produce to the trays of North Carolina students.
“I am especially happy that the program is ensuring the freshest fruits and vegetables are being served in school meals and that it’s also providing new markets for our state’s farmers,” Gay said.
Cover photo credit: NCDA&CS