Schools offer big market
JOHN BUCHANANIt's not often that a potentially huge, ideal new market materializes in a farmer's own backyard.
Published: May 23, 2012
Published: May 23, 2012
But that's exactly what's happening, thanks to an innovative new "farm to school" nutrition program from the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.
Beginning this fall, Florida farmers will have an unprecedented opportunity to sell fresh fruits and vegetables to Florida school districts and individual schools — and their 2.5 million daily consumers — under a plan created by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
A pair of powerful catalysts came together to facilitate the first-of-its-kind initiative.
One is a new, federally mandated meal plan from Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture that requires fresh fruits and vegetables every day in schools and other facilities funded through national child nutrition programs.
The other is that in January, under legislation passed last year by the Florida legislature and approved by USDA, the state's agriculture department assumed responsibility for child nutrition programs from the Florida Department of Education.
"So, what we said to schools as a result of those two things is that we want you to have the freshest of the fresh and the best possible price," said Robin Safley, director of the Division of Food, Nutrition and Wellness at the state Agriculture Department.
Yet another fortuitous reality is the fact that the eight-month Florida growing season perfectly matches the school year. "That means everything can be 'local' for us and not imported from somewhere else," Safley said. "And that meant we could have the most robust farm to school program you could possibly have."
Under the plan, "sponsors" apply to the agriculture department to become providers under the banner of the national school lunch program. Of 290 current sponsors, 67 are school districts representing the state's 67 counties. Others include charter schools and private schools or Department of Juvenile Justice correctional facilities.
In turn, a sponsor typically represents multiple individual feeding locations. For example, the Miami-Dade County school district includes more than 350 individual locations.
"Statewide, our 290 sponsors are like franchisees," Safley said. "And in turn, they operate more than 3,000 individual 'restaurants.' "
A critical factor in the successful development of the program has been the education of school districts that have not previously acquired fresh produce.
"What we found in our initial research was that a lot of the school districts really were not as up to speed or as knowledgeable about what was in season as they should be," Safley said. "So they would menu a produce item that was not actually in season. And that meant it had to be sourced outside Florida and it cost more. That was really an 'aha' moment that made us realize that some school districts just didn't understand the farming cycle."
As a result, in January Safley assembled a task force that included major school districts, farmers, food distributors and representatives of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.
The result: a statewide plan for the sale and distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables on a monthly schedule based on growing cycles.
For example, in August and September, okra and cucumbers will be promoted and featured on menus. From October to December, 12 crops, including cabbage, spinach and tomatoes, will be served. And January through March, 17 crops, including broccoli, sweet corn and strawberries, will be highlighted.
A procurement process that includes bidding by interested growers will be overseen by the agriculture department. However, actual purchasing will be done by individual school districts or schools.
Schools will not be legally required to buy from the program.
One major farmer who has been selling to schools for five years and served on the task force this year is R.C. Hatton, a 12,000-acre operation located in Palm Beach County and growing crops such as sweet corn and green beans.
R.C. Hatton currently does business with nine Florida school districts, including seven of the 10 largest — and hopes to do business with more as a result of the new program, said co-owner Paul Allen.
The farm to school market has been so successful for R.C. Hatton that it has created a dozen new jobs in its processing facilities. "That's just a result of the volume, because Florida has the third largest school system in the country," Allen said. "So, if this new program works on the scale the agriculture department wants it to work, farmers will have to create new jobs and hire new people to handle the volume."
Allen praised Putnam and Safley for their efforts in developing the new program.
"This is something very close to Commissioner Putnam and he is determined to get it done," he said. "But the person in charge is Robin Safley. And I've never been around a person that's more driven than she is to accomplish this. I've never seen a government agency move as fast as the Department of Agriculture has to get this done. What they've done is totally unique."
For more information or to sign up for the program, go online to www.freshfromflorida.com/divisions/fnw/farm_to_school.html.