North Carolina school kids listen up – strawberries are hitting the lunch menu.
The N.C. Farm to School program, has delivered food from local farms directly to the schools for over 20 years.
In 2018, sales from N.C. farms totaled $1.3 million. Strawberries are still the most popular item in the Farm to School program, so much so that the Food Distribution Division has extended the buying season for an extra week to make sure that schools get the fresh fruit they want.
And there are plenty of school systems interested in those items, said Gary Gay, NCDA&CS Food Distribution Division director.
“We currently serve 85 school systems,” he said. “And that’s out of 115 systems in the state. So it has grown a lot.”
By May 20, the division expects to have delivered around 23,510 flats of strawberries, with a total worth of $346,772.50.
The N.C. Farm to School program began in 1997, when the United States Department of Defense Merchandising Office and the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services Food Distribution and Marketing Divisions began working together to bring farm-fresh produce to schools across the state. Gay said that the program began with a small variety of products, but has grown in leaps and bounds since then.
“Strawberries were the first item that we moved, and we also looked at apples,” he said. “Nowadays we have about 21 items in our catalog.”
That catalog now includes all kinds of locally-grown fruits and vegetables, including watermelons, cantaloupes, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, green cabbage, broccoli, apple slices, kale, collards, peaches, Asian pears, romaine, honey dew melon, blueberries and more.
To get the food where it needs to go, school nutrition directors place orders with the Food Distribution division for whatever their schools want to purchase. Two schools may not need or want the same exact items, and different options become available at different times during the year as they come in and out of season.
Farm to School is just one of the responsibilities that food distribution handles across the state.
Broadly, the division administers USDA nutrition programs at the state level, including school feeding programs like Farm to School and emergency feeding operations.
Walter Beal, warehouse manager at the food distribution facility in Creedmoor, said that the division’s food shipping infrastructure and experience were vital during recovery efforts after Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence.
“We ran 29 trips during Matthew, and 27 during Florence,” Beal said. “Even when the roads were flooded and people were saying there was no way to get to Wilmington, our guys found a way in.”
Not all of that cargo was even food, Beal said. Some of the trucks heading to disaster recovery areas during Florence carried bales of hay, as the food distribution division looked for any way to be of help during the storm.
All told, the division ships food to around 500 different agencies statewide. Whether it be a school seeking fresh produce, a soup kitchen providing essential meals to a local community or a disaster recovery zone in need of vital supplies, food distribution makes sure that essential food gets where it needs to go, and when it needs to get there.