“It’s All About the Kids, And What’s Good for Them”
Senior Director of Orange County Public Schools Food & Nutrition Services (FNS), Lora Gilbert credits the Oak Ridge High School’s Youth 4 Change student group, who requested an increase in the fresh produce menu selections, for the new initiative. And in response, on Thursday, OCPS FNS launched a new district-wide Fresh to Schools initiative aimed at bringing more fresh fruits and vegetables to Orange County school kids.
“Back in July, the Oak Ridge High student group asked to speak with us and we were very surprised when they said, ‘we want more fresh produce’, ” Gilbert said. ”And when we inquired, they wanted things like — cucumbers, corn, peppers, cantaloupe, to name a few. So, what a great opportunity it is to respond and give them what they want. It is a win for everybody.”
While the Fresh to Schools initiative will expand the more than 20 servings per week of fresh fruit and vegetables which the school district currently offers, Gilbert says, there are concerns about cost. But she is anticipating that more students from surrounding counties will come into the program, fresh produce purchases will increase and costs will come down. More student participation also means larger reimbursements from the USDA.
OCPS Deputy Superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins, told the gathering of state officials, local leaders, farmers, food service directors, students and parents, increasing the in take of fresh fruits and vegetables in the diets of young people, was critical in view of the several childhood diseases, including obesity, that can be corrected with proper nutrition.
The new Fresh to Schools initiative aligns well with the recent transfer of Florida’s school nutrition from the Department of Education to the Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, as the public school system is now opening up to Florida’s agricultural products. The transfer also gives responsibility to state agriculture officials to oversee the school lunch program which provides meals to 2.6 million school children in Florida.
Newly appointed Director of the Division of Food, Nutrition & Wellness for the Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, Robin Safley, expressed her excitement over the initiative and praised State Senator Gary Siplin (D-Orlando) for his role in helping to get the Healthy Schools for Healthy Lives Act through the Florida Legislature. She suggested that the Fresh to Schools initiative could serve as a model for replication throughout the state.
Farmers who were present at the launch, also expressed their own excitement.
“We currently supply some fresh vegetables, including green beans, bell peppers and squash to schools,” said Nick Bergstrom, Chief Sales Officer of Pero Family Farms, a more than 100-year-old company. “But schools want to see more fresh fruit and vegetables and as a farming company, we would like to find ways to partner and make it as cost efficient as possible.”
He added that, going forward, the company anticipated delivering increased volumes of fresh fruit and vegetables to schools across the state.
Paul Allen, vice-president of R.C. Hatton, a family-owned farm since 1938 that produces sweet corn and green beans in Palm Beach County, said the new initiative is a win-win in many ways.
“The initiative is very supportive of our farm, while feeding the kids from a nutritional stand point and giving them healthy foods,” he said. “And we have added many jobs to our operation for people that need them in a very tough economy. So, it is a win-win in a lot of different ways.”
Currently supplying some 150,000 kids weekly with sweet corn and green beans in several schools across the state, Allen said he expected this could increase substantially, as new schools were already in contact for the farm’s fresh crops.
“We farm about 4,000 acres each of sweet corn and green beans,” he said. “Our crops are not frozen, not canned, its fresh produce from the field and generally, its consumed by the kids within one week of harvest. So, it’s very, very, fresh and healthy for the kids.”
Siplin said he was “astounded” when the student body contacted him requesting more fresh fruit and vegetables in schools, and asked for his involvement. This is an issue with which student bodies are generally not concerned, he said.
“The student body impressed me so much, that I helped file a bill to continue to make sure they get fresh fruit and vegetables,” Siplin said. “If we can get students to take on an issue like fruit and vegetables, and other issues too, our state will continue to grow.”
Gilbert summed it up this way, “it’s all about the kids and what’s good for them.”