Produce in most of its forms turns up in foodservice menu planning

Eat local.

In many ways, it’s become a mantra – the idea of sourcing fresh, local ingredients when they’re in season for a healthier diet and to enjoy fresher and better-tasting food while reducing the impact on the environment.

It’s a mantra that is not lost on foodservice professionals. Many build, revise and rotate menus based on the produce that’s available within a certain radius of their location at any given time. Still, limiting a menu to local fruits and vegetables in, say, Vermont in January, might mean a steady rotation of root vegetables and apples out of storage.

Salad Bar VeggiesChefs, foodservice professionals and those who supply them work around that in a variety of ways. Many do roll with produce grown in close proximity when they can get it. But depending on location and geography, that may be limited. And that’s where fresh-cut, frozen and processed produce come in.

“Foodservice directors/establishments use fresh as well as frozen/canned to provide quality products, based on seasons, and seek the highest quality product no matter what form,” said Anne Schlachter, director of education for the Association of Nutrition and Foodservice Professionals.

Labor, Price, Season

Richard Nickless, a chef of 43 years who has worked for a food distributor and in fine dining in hotels and restaurants, now serves as chef/supply and services director for the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs in Summerville, South Carolina. He said a variety of factors come into play in determining the mix of produce that goes into an institutional menu.

“When you look at fresh versus frozen versus something in a can, it comes down to a simple thing: is it the right season?” he said, adding that price also comes into play. “I can’t make money off my food. I have to look at the price point and what I can afford within the point.”

Labor is also a factor.

“You’ve got a scale level in a school where you can’t have somebody there with a knife cutting vegetables all day because they don’t have the time and they don’t want to pay the money,” he said. “It really depends on what you can afford and how creative the person is on the other end that’s preparing it.”

While chefs in high-end restaurants may have the financial flexibility to pay more for the best fresh produce and the staff to prep it — and make up for it in what they charge customers — people like Nickless and Cincinnati Public Schools Food Services Director Jessica Shelly, who have a strict budget, are more limited.

“I look at where is my labor best spent,” Shelly said. “Cucumbers aren’t a big deal for the ladies to slice up.”

Broccoli and cauliflower, on the other hand, can be labor-intensive and a lot is likely to be wasted in the hand-cutting process. In that event, Shelly often orders bags of pre-cut florets.

A couple of times a month, Nickless features a special menu for the 150 to 180 people his kitchen serves daily built around fresh, local ingredients. He does the cooking himself, showing his staff how to work with and correctly prepare the produce.

Beyond that, he uses fresh, local produce when he can get it, backfilling with fresh-cut, processed and frozen.

“It’s all based on the application,” he said. “There’s a need for every one of them. If it’s an off season for tomatoes, you’re better off using a canned product that was cut in the field, processed in the field and put in the can and meets your standards. You’ve got to figure out what you’re going to use and what you’re going to buy fresh and not.”

For lettuce out of season, he’s likely to purchase it pre-chopped in a bag.

A Place for Processed

Shelly, who is also president-elect of the Ohio School Nutrition Association, and her staff have worked hard to promote eating fresh produce in the district’s 53 schools via salad bars and innovative initiatives to get kids to try new fruits and vegetables. She’s also on a tight budget, and so turns to fresh-cut, canned and frozen produce items to maximize federal school lunch funding.

That means items like canned mandarin oranges, which students like, or applesauce go into the mix.

“We don’t replace apples with applesauce, but we like to make sure we have a variety for them to sample,” Shelly said. “And sometimes kids who eat applesauce will be more likely to have a bite of a fresh apple.”

She might order whole radishes for the high school salad bars, but elementary-age kids want them sliced – enter fresh-cut. The romaine for salad bars also comes washed and chopped, as do topper items like diced tomatoes and sliced red onions.

Growing season also comes into play. Shelly tries to source locally, but will only buy produce grown on GAP-certified farms. That can be a challenge when she needs around 25,000 half-cup servings for a single day – and the reason she’s willing to buy from other regions to get the fresh products she wants.

When local or otherwise fresh produce isn’t available, she’ll obtain certain frozen items and put those on the salad bars so students still enjoy variety. Canned beans also make their way to the salad bars; the students she feeds don’t tend to like hot legumes, but they will try them on top of something else. She won’t buy anything packed in syrup.

Shelly also orders canned and frozen items for cooking. That’s rarely the case with fresh produce.

“It’s a matter of pricing,” she said. “If we’re going to get fresh produce, we’re going to give it to the kids in that form.” 

Through the Roof

At Eskenazi Health, a public hospital serving about 100,000 meals a month in Indianapolis, registered dietitian Megan Cook said they buy fresh – and local – when they can.

“I think everybody is wanting to promote fresh and really, seasonality is a huge push,” she said. “We’re a landlocked state and we only get so many months of summer per year, so we’re reliant on what we can get the quickest.”

Sometimes, what they can get the quickest comes from the roof. Eskenazi has what they call a Sky Farm. On the roof of the hospital, they grow kale, tomatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, fennels, lettuce mix, arugula and about a dozen other items. Last year, they produced about 2,200 pounds of produce on site.

When fresh isn’t available, Cook said, they prefer not to use canned products and opt instead when possible to buy fresh-frozen. They avoid frozen items with additives like shelf-life enhancers or salt, and read labels.

“We do (frozen) corn, we do peas,” she said. “We do some more deluxe frozen vegetable blends.

“We try to get the ones that will look good when thawed and cooked and not look unappealing and institutional.”

Fresh-cut items like cantaloupe and melon blends are often featured in the hospital’s Marketplace, or cafeteria. Eskenazi also purchases items like fresh-cut broccoli, cauliflower, green beans and carrots.

“It’s not a long list, but we use stuff we’re able to get year round where the quality is good enough, even though it’s not seasonal in Indiana,” she said.

Consider the Source

Shelly said suppliers have become more cognizant of schools’ needs for fresh produce – local when it’s available – and at realistic price points. It’s a matter of schools communicating their needs and suppliers being willing to work with them. As a result, she said, “great partnerships” have resulted in her being able to offer a better variety in fruits and vegetables that she can afford.

Nickless works with a local produce distributor that focuses on working with farmers in the region to procure local fruits and vegetables.

Cook said her organization makes it a point to source from a mix of vendors – those who can provide the local seasonal produce the hospital prefers to serve and larger suppliers who source from a wider geographic area.

“What we do is identify items we can get in a reasonable amount of time that may not be sourced from Indiana, but within a 250-mile radius,” she said. “Our vendors have done a really good job of finding what’s best for us.”

One of them is Piazza Produce in Indianapolis. The company has a special website,, where customers can view at any given time the produce and other items available locally, along with detailed profiles of the farmers who grow it. “Local” refers to anything within its delivery area, which includes Indiana and parts of Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio. They also send out a weekly Monday morning update.

Piazza’s Jim Tharp said that with items like squash, quality and taste probably don’t vary whether product comes out of the local area or farther away. But for other items – watermelon, tomatoes – it does.

Piazza also carries fresh frozen Indiana produce.

“They harvest it and freeze it and this is product we’re selling (in the winter),” Tharp said.

The company also operates a fresh-cut facility, processing year round with local as well as other produce, depending on the season. 

Quality Counts

On the frozen side, Nickless mostly buys vegetables – carrots, green beans and squash. He does use frozen fruit for some applications – peaches for cobblers, for example, or strawberries and cantaloupe to use in milkshakes and smoothies.

On the fresh-cut side, Nickless is a fan of spring mix and root vegetables. He also likes pre-cooked steamed onions.

As for canned products, he said they are better than ever.

“Even stuff like green beans are actually pretty good in the can now,” he said. “The only problem with canned is … when something sits in the water so long, it’s going to leach out its nutrients and flavor, so you’ve got to change the way you’re cooking this product and be careful of not overcooking.”

Take beans, for example. Nickless specifies the size and cut he wants for the beans he buys to get what he feels is the best quality and taste on the plate.

Frozen product is also improved, he said.

“It used to be frowned upon to get frozen items in restaurants, but the quality is getting better,” he said. “The frozen industry has done a good job of identifying what the chef needs, and in large quantities and consistency and keeping the price reasonable.

“There’s nothing wrong with a good frozen product as long as it’s handled correctly on the other end.”

— By Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer

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