An increasing number of our nation’s schools are using locally grown foods for school meals thanks to efforts of The USDA Farm to School Program. However, the availability of locally grown produce is often at the mercy of harsh weather conditions and other elements that lower production and cause shortages of popular food items.
Florida has experienced this challenge first-hand. A disease called citrus greening has already caused millions of dollars in damage to Florida’s orange crop. USDA scientists have been actively engaged in research to eradicate the disease, but the fruit, a favorite of school children, is now less available than in the past. The Florida Farm to School team is working with Florida Classic Growers to provide a new fruit alternative for school menus while also assisting fruit growers hit by damage to their orange crop.
By Lindsey Grubbs, Florida Farm to School and WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program Director, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Florida Farm to School Program took on a new project this year in conjunction with citrus growers focused on a new product in Florida: peaches! The Florida citrus industry has been experiencing difficulties recently with the spread of citrus greening. Citrus greening was discovered in Florida in 2005 and since taken a toll on the area’s orange groves.
According to the USDA, Florida produced fewer than 97 million 90-pound boxes of oranges. In 1998, the state produced 60 percent more. Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam said, “The 2014-2015 season represents a new low for Florida’s citrus industry and our state’s signature crop. We cannot overstate the challenges facing Florida citrus, but we will continue to fight to save the industry.”
One way Florida citrus farmers are confronting the shortage is by diversifying their crop and growing peaches. Not only was Florida Farm to School able to help growers promote peaches, but they facilitated sales between growers and Florida schools. And for some of the growers, this was a whole new market where they could prosper.
Peaches are only available in Florida during specific months, but they enter the market before Georgia and South Carolina varieties. Many had never even purchased a Florida peach before. The Florida Farm to School Team was able to assist by sourcing new and experienced peach growers, then working with each DoD prime vendor and the school’s distributor(s) to assist with procurement.
Florida Classic Growers, a subsidiary of Dundee Citrus, expressed interest in offering the peaches to schools participating in the National School Lunch Program. They started growing a new “Florida Peach” that University of Florida helped develop to better fit the state’s climate. This Florida variety, called a low-chill peach, needs a much shorter period of cold weather. By planting the low-chill peach, Florida Classic Growers was able to turn a profit despite the damage caused by citrus greening. Florida Farm to School added peaches to the DoD’s catalog so school districts with remaining entitlement DoD dollars had the opportunity to buy fresh, Florida peaches. The districts responded with enthusiasm, which encouraged the Florida Farm to School Team to reach out to districts not on DoD to help farmers facilitate peach sales.
By collecting data on Florida peaches purchased during this season, the Florida Farm to School Program was able to build excitement around these products. They also worked with Florida Classic Growers to create packaging just for schools (see this video). Lindsey Grubbs, Florida Farm to School Program Director, explained, “It was a great first year and we hope to build upon the Florida Fresh Peach Promotion next year!”
By working directly with farmers and school food service directors, the Florida Farm to School Team helped Florida citrus farmers during trying years, while giving students the chance to eat a new, “Fresh from Florida” fruit during school lunch.
March is National Nutrition Month. Throughout the month, USDA will be highlighting results of our efforts to improve access to safe, healthy food for all Americans and supporting the health of our next generation.