By: Kate Olender, Senior Director of Health and Wellness, United Fresh Produce Association
Every year, the United Fresh Start Foundation hosts the 50 leading school foodservice directors from across the U.S. at its School Foodservice Forum and Fresh Festival, taking place this year, June 25-27 in Chicago. The event facilitates connections between school foodservice professionals and the fresh produce industry so that, together, they can provide more fresh fruits and vegetables to school children. We chatted with Leslie Fowler, Chief of Nutrition and Facilities Operations at Chicago Public Schools, to understand what she finds valuable about the events. Leslie serves 385,000 kids every day. This will be her seventh year attending the School Foodservice Forum and Fresh Festival.
Why is it important for school foodservice professionals and the produce industry to connect?
In school foodservice, there’s a lack of understanding in how growers bring their produce to the school food market. This has led us to believe that fresh produce is outside of our price range, or that some items are only available in retail and not school foodservice.
How has connecting with the produce industry helped you provide fresh produce to kids?
Through conversations on the show floor, I’ve learned how growers work with distributors and work with us. Understanding the process by breaking through that disconnect and misunderstanding has made me better able to communicate and build partnerships with the industry. What I’ve learned from the United Fresh School Foodservice Forum is that nothing is off limits.
How has walking the show floor been valuable?
I see what’s new and what’s available for both our school meals and our FFVP grant. I walk the floor and I think, what’s new to me? What’s new to the kids, and what do I want the kids to try? How can I make this produce fit into my farm-to-school platform and integrated into the students’ curriculum?
In my day-to-day, I’m unaware of what fresh produce items are available because I don’t see them, I don’t interact with them throughout the day. The United Fresh show has allowed me to discover and learn. Each year I go to talk to the industry, and make deals to benefit my students.
Have you purchased new fresh fruits and vegetables for your district as a result of the Fresh Festival?
Oh, yes! I remember the year that mandarin oranges were on the show floor. When I saw the mandarins, I knew they’d be the perfect fruit because they’re so easy to peel. As a result, we now have mandarin oranges all the time in our cafeterias.
What is valuable about connecting with other school foodservice professionals?
It’s valuable to understand how things work in other districts, and the similarities and differences to how my district operates. Through conversation, we identify potential partnerships to support bringing more fresh produce to our kids, like collaborating to make a bigger buy to be more appealing to the grower and more affordable for us. Being able to walk the show floor with my peers is so important.
What are you looking forward to this year?
I’m never quite sure what I’m going to discover, but I always come away with something! I’m looking forward to hearing more about organics this year. And I’m excited to show my city of Chicago off to everyone!
Is there an overarching takeaway from your years of participation?
Yes. We are really only limited in our minds about what’s available to us in the school food realm.
Anything else you’d like to share?
This is one of my favorite events of the year. There’s always something new and fun, and I’m so excited to attend!