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A peachy pair: growing Florida peaches for Florida kids

NFSN Staff Thursday, October 15, 2015
This week’s Farm to School Month blogs are sponsored by Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative representing more than 1,800 organic farmers across the United States. Committed to fostering health and wellness in the youth of America, Organic Valley is proud to support the National Farm to School Network.
 Photo credit: Florida Farm to School Program
By the Florida Farm to School Program
Home to some of the first farm to school activities in the country, Florida has a robust history of connecting kids to fresh, healthy food and supporting local farmers. So when it became clear that Florida citrus farmers were severely struggling to grow oranges, the Florida Farm to School Program was eager to work with growers and schools to foster new partnership opportunities - with peaches!

In recent years, the Florida citrus industry has experienced significant difficulties with citrus greening – a disease that causes citrus trees to grow green, misshapen fruit, and has killed millions of citrus plants in the United States. According to the USDA, Florida is currently producing 60 percent less citrus than what it was just 15 years ago because of this plant disease. The 2014-2015 season was particularly bad, what Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam called “a new low for Florida’s citrus industry and our state’s signature crop.” Now, some Florida citrus growers are confronting these losses by diversifying their crop and growing peaches. 

The peaches they’re growing are a new variety of “Florida Peach” recently developed by researchers at the University of Florida. This special variety can tolerate longer periods of heat than most peach varieties, better fitting Florida’s warm climate. While these Florida peaches are generally smaller in size, they are harvestable months sooner than peaches in Georgia and South Carolina. 

As these Florida peaches began ripening, our Florida Farm to School Program teamed up with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to help farmers find markets for this delicious new crop. Our #1 idea? Schools! 

While most schools had never purchased Florida peaches before, many had been supportive of sourcing local food for school meals. Florida Farm to School had a network of schools to which we could promote these peaches, as well as the resources to connect and facilitate sales between growers and schools. For many citrus growers, this was a completely new market to prosper within. 

We were able to help secure new and experienced peach growers, and work with vendors and school distributors to assist with procurement. We worked to add peaches to the DoD Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program catalog, so school districts participating in the program had the opportunity to purchase fresh, Florida peaches. These districts responded with great enthusiasm to the new addition, which encouraged us to reach out to even more districts with this local fruit opportunity. 

With schools on board, the citrus farmers developed a relationships with Florida Classic Growers to create a special distribution packaging intended just for schools. This packaging can hold larger quantities of peaches than typically packages sold to grocery chains. The partnership demonstrates the opportunity and potential for schools, growers, processors and distributors to work together in creating a food supply chain that supports all parties involved. Check out the video above to see how it works!   

This spring 24 Florida school districts purchased 434,240 peaches for student to enjoy, and supported local citrus growers with more than $250,000 spent on this special local fruit. By working directly with farmers and school food service directors, the Florida Farm to School Team was able to help Florida citrus farmers during trying years, while also giving students the chance to eat a new, “Fresh from Florida” fruit in their school lunch. We’re excited to build upon this Florida Fresh Peach Promotion next season, and continue supporting economic development and healthy kids throughout our state. 

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