By: Kate Olender, Senior Director of Health and Wellness, United Fresh Produce Association
During the United Fresh Show in Chicago last month, the United Fresh Start Foundation hosted the School Foodservice Forum. The annual event facilitates connections between school foodservice professionals and the fresh produce industry to provide more fresh produce to more children. To learn more about the impact of the event, we talked to Amy Virus, MS, RD, LDN, from the Division of Food Services for the School District of Philadelphia. Amy serves 55,000 breakfasts and 90,000 lunches across 265 schools each day.
This was your fourth year attending this event. Why do you keep coming back?
I look forward to the School Foodservice Forum every year because it’s focused exclusively on fresh fruits and vegetables for schools. I get my specific questions answered, talk with the produce industry, and interact with other school foodservice directors. It’s energizing, inspiring, and builds camaraderie.
What fresh produce items have you started serving as a result of the School Foodservice Forum?
In a previous year, I connected with the mushroom industry and learned how plentiful mushrooms are in Pennsylvania. Now, we feature them in our Harvest of the Month program in February. We put mushrooms on our side salad and made chicken mushroom gravy, and the kids really enjoyed it! We’ll be featuring a slaw mix in our fall and winter menus, another item we learned about from the School Foodservice Forum’s Fresh Festival.
What did you learn this year that will help you serve even more fresh produce?
I connected with the school foodservice director from Florida and learned about how popular corn on the cob is with their students. I then connected with one of the produce vendors at the Fresh Festival about fresh corn, and found out that it’s possible for us to have in Pennsylvania too. Now, I’m reaching out to my produce distributor with a request for fresh corn on the cob.
Why are relationships between school foodservice leaders and the produce industry vital to helping kids become lifelong fresh produce consumers?
The more we both understand about each other’s business, the better off we all are. At the School Foodservice Forum, I talk to vendors and growers about the K-12 world. They talk to me about how they supply fresh produce. When we understand each other, we more effectively work together to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables to more kids. When kids are provided fresh produce today, it can help them build healthy habits they’ll have for the rest of their lives.
How have your students benefitted from your relationship with your produce distributor?
Our produce distributor helps us get the freshest produce within our parameters as a school district. For example, some of our schools have refrigeration limitations. Most don’t have kitchens or a central kitchen. Our produce distributor helps us serve fresh fruits and vegetables despite those constraints by providing us with options, like fresh-cut produce. Our partnership with our produce distributor is essential to ensuring our students have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Any closing thoughts on the School Foodservice Forum?
I always walk away more energized and inspired. It is worth the time and effort to attend. The event is invaluable.