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School officials advocate for Child Nutrition Bill at seminar

CHICAGO — The Urban School Food Alliance, a group of six of the nation’s largest school districts, advocated for the reauthorization of the federal Child Nutrition Bill during a United Fresh convention seminar, here, June 9.

The alliance represents the school districts of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Orlando. Combined, these six school districts serve 3 million kids daily, which equates to more than 500 million meals a year.

Five of the six districts were represented on the panel during the United Fresh event, including Laura Benavidez of Los Angeles Unified School District, Leslie Fowler of Chicago Public Schools, Penny Parham of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Dennis Barrett of the New York City Department of Education, and Lenea Pollett of the Dallas Independent School District. As a group, they were very enthusiastic about the increased inclusion of fresh fruits and vegetables on school menus.

Barrett of New York said the group is advocating for an increase of 50 cents per meal in federal funding.

“We want and need additional money to help to sustain the free lunch program,” he said.

He noted that some fruits and vegetables that are perfect for kids — such as easy-to-peel citrus — are more expensive and difficult to purchase with the current budget. He asked the produce industry in attendance to lobby for the reauthorization bill.

Parham of Miami said not to buy into media reports that kids waste fruits and vegetables and so they shouldn’t be included in the program. She said kids are kids and they do waste food, but it cuts across all categories.

Benavidez said fruits and vegetables greatly elevate the school meal program and said with more funding her school districts could institute better specs and buy organic produce, as well.

Pollett said “kids are heavier than they have ever been” and mandating the consumption of produce at the school level is an excellent way to combat childhood obesity. She said exposing them to healthy eating at a young age can establish a life-long pattern of good eating habits.

When discussing what the produce industry can do for them product wise, the foodservice directors had lots of suggestions.

Fowler of Chicago repeatedly said that her district is looking for “opportunity” buys. If a produce distributor has a deal, she can utilize it. She worked to dispel the belief that menus are set in stone and a district can only purchase a product when there is enough for all schools. If Fowler can get an excellent deal on fresh produce but can put it in only 10 schools, that works for her.

Parham agreed that it is possible to capitalize on opportunities. Echoing what many said, she noted communications between the school district and the produce supplier is key. She also said that fresh-cut products that can be cooked as part of a hot meal would be an excellent product to develop for the school foodservice industry.

For example, Parham said that a pack of vegetables that can be dropped in with chicken as part of a fajita stir fry would help fill the fruit and vegetable requirement and cut down on the workload of the cooking staff.

Fowler said individually quick frozen products might also have utility in school foodservice programs. Again, they help the districts meet its fruit and vegetable goals in a convenient way.

Barrett called on produce suppliers to help develop foodservice recipes that include their products. He noted that kale salad has become popular.

“We are looking for recipes, we want to emulate a five-star restaurant,” he said, eschewing the notion that quality and trends aren’t important.

Parham agreed, saying, “Don’t be afraid to bring us something new,” noting that a supplier brought cranberry hibiscus juice that was a hit.

Benavidez reminded the audience that school districts serve a lot of breakfasts to underprivileged kids and so she is often looking for a way to incorporate fruits and vegetables into the first meal of the day.

Pollett said older kids are looking for grab-and-go items. She indicated there is need for more of these type options in the produce category.

The foodservice directors are interested in lots of information on availability, handling and cooling needs of fresh produce. Several members of the audience said they had the information on ready-to-use charts and the panel said that would be very much welcome.

Barrett said shelf life is important as he needs 10 days to get the product through the system. He also has to have compostable packaging.

The group also indicated that through their alliance they can make volume buys in an effort to bring down the price of fresh produce.

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