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Pinellas school cafeterias serving more local produce

At trendy restaurants, chefs prepare their fancy creations with fresh, locally grown produce .

Now, trendy school cafeterias do the same thing.

One day earlier this month, a driver from Bliss Produce arrived at Safety Harbor Middle School and wheeled in several crates of tangelos grown by Joshua Citrus Inc. in Arcadia.

In no time, cafeteria workers had washed the tangelos, sliced them with a "sectionizer," and placed the fruit slices in parfaits and teriyaki chicken salads.

Fresh Florida citrus served to hungry Florida school kids — nothing seems more obvious. But a lot of the food served in school cafeterias, like a lot of the food served anywhere, comes from large food suppliers who ship it in from afar.

In recent years, Florida schools have made an effort to use more produce from Florida farms, because it's healthy and local. The effort gained new momentum this year, after the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services took over responsibility for school food programs.

"Our society got away from scratch cooking. So did the schools," said Robin Safley, who handles food and nutrition programs for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Pinellas schools serve tens of thousands of students each day, so it's not always possible to take a shopping trip to the nearest farm. Besides, Safley said, "Produce is tricky. If it gets delivered on Monday it needs to be served on Tuesday. It doesn't have much of a shelf life."

But lately, she said, "there definitely has been a push to go back to fresh and local."

The state agriculture department has now set up a system in which Florida farms can bid to provide citrus, broccoli, corn, peppers, tomatoes and many other fresh fruits and vegetables. The school system's regular produce providers can make the deliveries.

Also, the department has helped provide recipes to the school systems, in case the staff isn't sure how to make okra appealing to third-graders. The department also has educational posters so kids can learn about what they're eating.

Some of the recipes might sound like a tough sell to picky eaters — one sample recipe is cauliflower with Craisins. But Barbara Dalesandro, food service manager at Safety Harbor Middle, said students are actually much more willing than you might think to try new foods. Some track her down at the school to ask her about the latest offerings.

"They love oranges, they'll eat all these up," she said after a recent delivery.

Art Dunham is Pinellas County schools' director of food services, and he's enthusiastic about the program. Not only do the students get good fresh fruits and vegetables, but at the right point in the season, the prices are very good, he said.

Safley said she hopes that as the program matures, more farmers will provide food, which will provide more healthy options for children.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@tampabay.com.

Pinellas school cafeterias serving more local produce 12/22/12 [Last modified: Thursday, December 20, 2012 6:29pm]
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