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Fruit, veg exec: Distributors should help schools

Fruit and vegetable growers and distributors can do a good business selling their products to schools under the new meals rules, but they should help school food directors and teachers educate students about unfamiliar foods, a key produce distributor told his own industry last week.

Phillip Muir

Phillip Muir
“Schools are a good business — better than hospitals, chains and fine dining. In the recession schools have been the one category that has been growing,” Phillip Muir, president and CEO of Muir Copper Canyon Farms, a Salt Lake City firm, said in a presentation to the United Fresh Produce Association.

“But schools need help,” Muir said, telling his fellow distributors that if they want to be successful they have to help school food directors find ways to make fruits and vegetables attractive and to teach children about the fruits and vegetables they are now offered.

Under the new rules that went into effect this year, schools are required to double the amount of fruits and vegetables served at lunch. Some students have protested the change in the menus, and some school food directors have reported that the students are throwing away the fruits and vegetables.

But Muir says the distributors can help the schools avoid some of the problems.

“I am a firm believer in the salad bar,” Muir said. “It drives changes in eating habits and drives changes in purchasing at home.”

Muir said producers should also help the schools with the display of fruits and vegetables, noting that strawberries and some other fruits should be served in small cups.

Distributors should also help schools incorporate unfamiliar foods into the curriculum and connect them to holidays, he noted. One school, he said, used Halloween to teach children to eat blood oranges. “The kids are picking them up and more importantly, they are eating them,” he said.

To develop the business, Muir said, distributors should participate in meetings of the school food directors association.

“Meetings are one chance per year to meet the school nutrition directors. Look for training opportunities,” he said, adding that his company has developed a manual to help schools with portion sizes and storage practices.

For Muir Copper Canyon Farms, this approach appears to pay off.

The company distributes fruits and vegetables from Nevada to the Canadian border, and Muir said he has proven that he can get fresh fruits and vegetables to the remotest locations using subcontractors. He has also won contracts to distribute fruits and vegetables to military bases and Indian reservations.

Muir, whose ancestors started the business in Utah in 1850, said the company uses the latest model refrigerated commercial delivery trucks which are equipped for fast off-loading at the schools. Yet he said his business has grown so much that he been forced to load the fruits and vegetables much higher than in the past and that his drivers have to take longer to unload the produce.