December 21, 2018

School lunch renaissance equals big opportunity for produce processors

By Andrew Marshall | Columnist

Often referred to as “The Largest Restaurant in Town,” K-12 school districts are high-volume foodservice buyers that are looking for new and innovative ways to serve fresh-focused meals and snacks to children.

Produce is a mandatory component of every school meal, and school foodservice directors are seeking the latest trends in packaging, fresh-cut equipment and mechanization. This is not only ease their staff’s workload, but to provide kids with visually appealing, nutritious options that look less institutional and more like something they would see in their local quick-serve restaurant or c-store display case.

Increasingly, produce foodservice distributors, fresh-cut processors and equipment manufacturers are recognizing that K-12 schools are important customers. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 30 million school lunches are served each day that have at least a half-cup of fruit and vegetables — double what most schools were serving a little more than a half a decade ago. Schools also offer breakfast, snacks and after-school meals to millions of students each day.

One school program, the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, provides more than 4 million children in over 7,600 of the nation’s lowest-income elementary schools with an in-class fresh fruit or vegetable snack multiple times each week. The program reaches students in all fifty states, and they get access to a variety of produce items they might not otherwise have the opportunity to sample at home. To help schools distribute the fresh fruits and veggies to kids in the classroom, many of the produce snacks often arrive wrapped, in cups, or in individual, single-serve plastic (or other material) packaging.

Renaissance in school lunch

School foodservice is undergoing a renaissance, and there are big opportunities for companies to play a pivotal role:

  • More than 90 percent of schools need at least one piece of updated school kitchen equipment, including items like industrial slicers, knives and cutting boards, and cold storage, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report. Until school kitchens are fully modernized, these schools may need pre-sliced produce items to meet their needs.
  • School districts contract with local growers, working closely with produce distributors to procure additional fresh and fresh-cut fruits and vegetables, so students can access a wide variety of choices throughout the school year.
  • More schools are participating in “grab and go” breakfasts and “breakfast in the classroom” programs, a great opportunity for fresh-cut single serve products.
  • Packaging technology provides students with individual, snackable packs, mimicking items they might see in commercial channels, while ensuring adequate portions and reducing waste.
  • School districts are looking to evaluate how they can transition to offering more fresh, scratch-cooked items. This can mean re-evaluating their current preparation and distribution models, and in some cases looking to build central kitchens or facilities to handle fresh-prep and produce processing in-house.

“One of our goals is to shift the focus of how kids grow up and understand what food should look like,” said Bertrand Weber, a trained chef and the director of culinary and wellness services for Minneapolis Public Schools. “If you focus on fresh whole foods, you’re automatically making a shift towards healthier eating, and we want our students to be lifelong healthy eaters.”

MORE: United Fresh efforts spur 5,000 salad bars in schools

Bertrand has implemented salad bars in 90 percent of his schools. He’s one of the many school foodservice directors throughout the country who are transforming school foodservice. He also attends the annual United Fresh convention, meeting with exhibitors as part of the United Fresh Start Foundation’s School Foodservice Forum, a program that connects school foodservice leaders with the produce industry.

The next opportunity to learn about United Fresh’s mission to increase children’s access to fresh produce at school will be at FreshStart 2019 at the La Quinta Resort & Club in La Quinta, California, Jan. 15-17. Visit for more info.

— Andrew Marshall is the Director, Foodservice & Foundation Partnerships for the United Fresh Produce Association. 

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