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Farmers Overlooking Markets in Local Schools

About a million times a day, children eat meals prepared in Georgia school cafeterias. And they find a lot of fresh fruits and veggies on their lunch trays.

"We sell a lot of fresh fruits and a lot of salads," said Licia Nicholson, a school nutrition director in Tifton, Ga.

Nicholson said locally grown produce has its advantages. "It's better for the taste and the nutritional value," she said.

Nicholson and her food service workers prepare 900 meals every school day for hungry children at a Tifton, Ga., middle school. "The cafeteria needs a lot of tomatoes, carrots and other fruits and vegetables," Nicholson said.

Local Crops, Local Markets

Local farmers could influence the price they get for their crops if they'd look at local schools as markets, said Mark Risse, a University of Georgia scientist.

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Photo: Joe Courson

The hundreds of lunches served up daily in local schools point to potential markets for locally grown produce.

"There have been some successful operations down in Florida, where farmers have cooperatively worked together to supply most of the school lunch menus," Risse said.

Among other things, Risse works with a number of UGA programs designed to encourage farmers to find local markets. Local school systems can be promising: they have money to spend and hundreds of mouths to feed.

"The farmers benefit," he said, "and they've got a market that's readily available to meet the demand locally."

Connections Not Being Made

Risse said he's not aware of any school systems in Georgia that use locally grown produce.

"That doesn't mean they don't exist," he said. "A lot of people could work together to see this happen anywhere in Georgia, I think. It's an emerging opportunity we should take advantage of. It's one type of direct marketing, and I think the future of agriculture holds this. Direct marketing is the key to it, really."

Farmers would have to do a lot of marketing first, he said, and then focus on growing their crops once they've established the markets.

Farming 'Backwards'

"That seems a little backwards for a farmer," he said. "A farmer wants to produce and then worry about the market. And really, we should be doing it the other way around."

Before anything could work, farmers would need to get to know their local schools and the procedures for bidding and securing food-service contracts.

"Some school systems do a weekly produce bid. Others do a yearly bid," Nicholson said. But she likes the idea of making the connection. "I think there would be good nutrition there and a good economy lesson as well," she said.

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