What do the military’s logistical network, peaches and peppers, and school children have in common? The first delivers the second to the third through a unique partnership between the Department of Defense (DoD) and USDA.
October is National Farm to School Month and the perfect time to celebrate the DoD Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which connects schools with fresh and often local produce using their USDA Foods entitlement dollars. Schools order local foods from a variety of sources, and according to the 2015 USDA Farm to School Census, 29 percent of districts participating in farm to school are receiving local foods through DoD Fresh.
For the past two decades, USDA has worked with DoD to leverage its extensive procurement system to bring fresh produce to schools. Since the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) procures thousands of items to support the nation’s troops and military bases, using this network to supply school meal programs is mutually beneficial.
The roots of the connection between DoD and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) go back a half century, even before the beginning of DoD Fresh. During World War II, many young men were rejected from the United States military draft due to medical conditions caused by childhood malnutrition. This became a matter of national security that caused alarm at DoD. The rates of malnutrition among draftees, as well as the general health of the nation’s children, led to the signing of the National School Lunch Act in 1946 by President Harry Truman. Similarly, DoD Fresh improves the nation’s health and supports U.S. agriculture by providing nutritious options for school lunches and encouraging children to develop healthy eating patterns at a young age.
DoD Fresh has steadily grown from $3.2 million and eight participating states in school year 1995-1996 to $198 million and 48 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Guam in school year 2015-2016. States can opt to allocate a portion of their USDA Foods entitlement dollars toward DoD Fresh. Schools and school districts are then able to choose from a large selection of produce options available in their regional vendor’s catalog. The catalogs identify which items are locally grown, offer a variety of pack sizes and include pre-cut options.
In late August, FNS accompanied DLA on a vendor site visit to Royal Food Service in Atlanta to learn first-hand about the vendor’s best practices in providing exemplary service to its school customers. DLA audits vendors once per contract period, or more often as necessary, to ensure compliance with program requirements. Royal serves 1,900 schools and exemplifies excellent customer service through regular communication. Newsletters for schools feature updates on products and deliveries, local produce, market conditions and peak-of-season produce. “We try and educate and guide our customers to purchase the best product, at the best price, at the right time of the year,” explains Katie Whitehurst, Royal’s School Director. Royal also reaches out to local growers in states adjacent to Georgia, who may provide a significant volume of produce to meet schools’ needs, while local growers approach Royal to develop partnerships.
DoD Fresh is all about partnerships, connecting local farmers with vendors and schools and leveraging the unique capabilities of DLA and USDA. These efforts bring peaches and peppers – and many other fresh fruits and vegetables – to the plates of school children across the country.
Take one small step in celebration of National Farm to School Month and find your DoD Fresh vendor! And sign up today for the USDA Foods E-Letter and Community Food Systems E-Letter for all the latest program news and resources.