Shortly after becoming Agriculture Commissioner, Adam Putnam asked lawmakers to move the state’s school lunch program to his agency. Lawmakers approved the change in 2011.
Putnam stopped by WUSF’s studios this week for an interview with Florida Matters. Host Carson Cooper asked Putnam what has changed since his agency took over school food programs.
Q: One of your first priorities when you took office was to move the state school lunch program over from the Department of Education over to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. You called that a win-win situation. So are Florida kids scarfing down Florida fruits and veggies now?
A: They’re doing a lot better job about it than they were in the past. You know, it’s kind of indefensible in the past that you would have a child in a Plant City school eating Mexican strawberries. Or a child in the Orange County schools drinking Brazilian orange juice.
We serve 4.3 million meals a day in the Florida public school system. And we produce 300 things that your mother would be happy for you to eat more of in Florida and our growing season coincides with the school year. We do produce in the winter and early spring when many other states can’t produce.
And so it only makes sense to get fresh strawberries and fresh blueberries and citrus and sweet corn and lettuce on the lunch room trays of Florida’s schools; develop life-long healthy eating habits. And I think over time you’ll see those habits will save us money on programs like Medicaid and Medicare, where 60 percent of health care costs are managing diet-related illnesses.
It’s good for Florida businesses and it’s good for our school kids. And some of the counties that have been more successful in implementing these new processes are right here in the Bay area.
Q: Does it cost more money though? Aside from the pride of serving Florida strawberries versus Mexican strawberries, why are they serving those Mexican strawberries in the first place? Because it’s cheaper, right? This is the market at work.
A: Well, no. Plant City strawberries for a Plant City school are cheaper than Mexico.
Q: Help explain why that hasn’t been up until this?
A: Well, we didn’t have the training among the buyers on what to buy and when to buy. Don’t order strawberries for the first week of school in August. That’s a bad deal. But as a society we’ve kind of gotten away from the idea of seasons. Just that simple change in buying behavior alone saves a lot of money.
We’re also running the system like a restaurant chain. And in the past it was run like 67 restaurant chains. And so we’re adopting common menuing for the state so that we can negotiate a better deal, buy at greater bulk and farmer’s can plan plan. Because they know, for example, the third week in April there’s going to be a big push for broccoli. Or for leafy greens.
And we can also take advantage of changes in the marketplace that are unrelated to the school system. So if a weather condition means that Mexican strawberry imports are going to come into Florida two weeks earlier than the Florida growers anticipated, that crashes the price. And it creates a significant buying opportunity for the schools. And we’ve actually seen that happen.
The first year we had it we emailed the schools and said there’s a buying opportunity on Florida strawberries and immediately four counties in the Tampa Bay area swooped in, bought ’em up. They had berries that had been in the field two days earlier. They were as fresh as they could be. They were a great deal for the school district. And it extended the season for those Florida strawberry growers by two weeks, which might be all the difference in the world in profitability.