WASHINGTON — While the policy battle rages on Capitol Hill about funding for school meal changes, produce companies are joining together in an unlikely location — the School Nutrition Association's annual meeting — to educate school foodservice staff on the best ways to meet the new standards.
Starting this month, school cafeterias must meet new limits on sodium, ensure all grains are whole grain rich, double the amount of fruits or vegetables offered at breakfast and ensure students take half a cup of produce with every meal. Schools will also be required to meet new Smart Snacks in School rules forfoods and beverages sold in school vending machines, snack bars and a la carte lines
For the first time, the United Fresh Produce Association hosted the Fresh Produce Pavilion at SNA's trade show in Boston from July 13-16, where school staff had the opportunity to ask the experts about the most efficient ways to increase fresh produce in school meals.
"School nutrition is an important issue, and it's a huge sales opportunity for the produce industry," said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health at United Fresh.
Some companies, such as Ready Pac Foods and Dole Foodservice, have exhibited at past SNA meetings, but the 1,600-square-foot pavilion is a departure, and an investment for United Fresh and the companies that exhibited.
The produce companies are not there to do business, DiSogra explained, but to help schools with any problems they may have, facilitate an easier way to find distributors or offer help in writing a request for proposal. Exhibitors include Chiquita Brands International, Duda Farms Fresh Foods, Grimmway Farms, HMC Farms, the Mushroom Council, the National Watermelon Promotion Board, NatureSeal, PRO*ACT, Ready Pac and San Miguel Produce.
The pavilion includes a fresh produce vending machine, salad bar and huge cold cases with fresh-cut produce in five- and 10-pound and single-serving packaging.
"People are telling us they didn't know there's such a wide variety of produce available to them," DiSogra said.
By far the biggest show-stopper has been the fresh produce vending machine, which United Fresh borrowed from the National Automatic Merchandising Association.
"That's the hottest thing people have been taken pictures of" and posting on social media, DiSogra said.
DiSogra told The Produce News she is hearing recurrent themes that she'll be bringing back to Washington as a wide coalition of advocates work to help schools increase fruit and vegetable servings for school-aged kids.
School nutrition managers are complaining that children do not have enough time to eat produce during lunchtime.
"They can gobble up a hamburger, but fruits and vegetables take more time to eat," she said.
Schools also need more resources because they did not receive a higher reimbursement rate to support the new school breakfast demands.
In the meantime, SNA has been a leading advocate for a delay in the new school standards, insisting many schools are having difficulty meet the new standards.
United Fresh Chairman Ron Carkoski participated in a high-level meeting last week with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and representatives from 15 health, nutrition and school organizations to discuss solutions for meeting modern school meal standards. Carkoski, president and chief executive officer at The Four Seasons Family of Cos. in Ephrata, PA, was the only produce industry representative at the USDA meeting.