Growers Get Peaches In Front of Pupils

peaches-schools

Farm to School Program Continues to Connect Orchardists with Florida Schools

IF YOU’RE IN ANY FIELD of agriculture in the Southeast, then you’ve probably heard of citrus greening and the way the disease is devastating the Florida citrus industry. If you’re in elementary school in Florida, however, then the fresh produce in your school-provided lunch is looking more sweet than ever. School children in 24 districts in The Sunshine State have been loving the peaches that have emerged over the years as a result of crop diversification, and it’s all thanks to the Florida Farm to School Program.

HISTORY OF THE PROGRAM

According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), the first Farm to School Program was started by a group of pioneering African-American farmers after they formed the New North Florida Cooperative Association, Inc. (NNFC) in 1995.

The NNFC started selling their produce to Gadsden County schools the following school year. The program expanded from there, encompassing a total of 15 school districts in Florida and surrounding states by 2003.

In its current form, the Florida Farm to School Program has a dual aim: to benefit both Florida’s school children and the state’s agricultural growers. Students benefit from the increased volume of fresh and nutritious Florida produce in their school meals, and Florida growers benefit from having a dedicated, local market for their produce.

Florida’s schools are required to provide nutritional lunches to students, and the schools spend millions per year to do so, with an added focus on fresh fruits and vegetables. The Farm to School Program aims to help those purchasing funds to go to Florida growers, thus keeping those ag dollars within the Sunshine State.

ENTER PEACHES

Citrus was obviously a good choice for providing fresh, nutritional fruit to the Farm to School Program, but citrus greening has dwindled the citrus harvest, making some growers look to diversify their crops. Aware of these efforts, the Farm to School team worked with growers to again benefit both Florida’s school children and its ag industry.

“In 2015, several of Florida’s citrus growers were looking to diversify and grow a new product in Florida due to the challenges that citrus has seen in our state,” explains Aaron Keller, the Press Secretary for the Office of Commissioner Adam Putnam. “The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Farm to School team worked with growers to promote peaches as a new product and introduce to a new market: Florida’s schools.”

The Florida Farm to School program began working with a Grower’s Association division — Florida Classic Growers — that specializes in citrus, blueberries, and peaches, to provide a fresh fruit alternative to citrus for Florida’s schoolchildren while also helping growers who had been suffering from the effects of citrus greening. Peaches were the natural choice, both for citrus growers looking to diversify their operations because of citrus greening and schools needing a tasty fresh fruit alternative that children will eat.

PEACHES BY THE NUMBERS

Peaches were promoted from March 1 to June 1, 2015 by the Florida Farm to School Program, and the program team even worked to facilitate sales between growers and Florida schools. Keller observes that it was a first for many Florida schools. “Many of our schools had never purchased a Florida peach before,” he adds. Peaches are a relatively new crop in The Sunshine State, but the Florida Farm to School Program had a hand in growing the peach industry and helping citrus growers under the stress of HLB to diversify their operations.

According to numbers released by FDACS and the USDA, the 24 participating Florida school districts bought nearly 500,000 peaches from Florida growers, to a tune of $259,114, from March 1 to June 1, 2015. One infographic crunched the numbers to reveal that the amount of peaches consumed by Florida school children would stretch 15 miles!

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Of the most recent harvest, Keller says that “there was not a direct marketing effort in 2016 for peaches by the Farm to School team,” as there was in 2015. FDACS offers tips and links on its website for helping growers to get into the program and connect with local school districts to sell their produce. All types of growers are able to participate. “Florida’s Farm to School initiative encompasses all products grown in the state of Florida,” Keller shares.

Peach growers are encouraged to participate in the Florida Farm to School program as peaches provide such a desirable product. Keller assures, “We’re always looking to better connect Florida growers with Florida’s schools.”

CREDIT

story by ERIKA ALDRICH