The DFFI network consists of, among other professions, Extension employees, food service directors, restaurateurs and farmers. “That allows everyone that was working in their own circles to hook up. Now, we know of farmers and cooperatives to work with. They’re working to expand – most are small to medium-sized operations. The school sales provide them with a large, consistent market.

“Right now, the Delta isn’t overflowing with fruit and vegetable growers that can provide a supply for all the demand. But we have a great place to start.”

Has Betz identified student produce preferences?

“These are the things that we’re just beginning to discover. Part of my responsibilities is to collect that information and share it publically.

“One of the interesting things is the federal government has begun new school lunch standards. Those require an increase in the serving amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables.  

“A lot of the food service directors I speak with say ‘This week I need a red or green or orange.’ They’re referencing the color of the different types of produce they need.”

Obviously, the students and staff are more familiar with Southern staple ingredients like sweet potatoes, greens, peas, okra, and watermelon. But because of the new federal standards, there’s an interest in bringing in less common choices such as kale, Swiss chard, butternut squash.

“Back in August, we even sold some Crenshaw melons. In Indianola, where the school district will be coming on board soon, they bought eggplant for the first time. It’s an exciting time as this shift takes place and provides new opportunities.”

Education

While local growers provide the best quality ingredients in-season, there are still plenty of food and produce vendors the schools can tap into in the off-season. That leads to schools creating menus around the seasonality of foods.

And that, in turn, will lead to larger concepts and the education of students by making them more aware of what they’re eating in the cafeteria, says Betz. “They’ll see the growing patterns and how that relates to the foods they’re served.”

DFFI has an ambitious agenda. In the next few years, “we’d like to work towards providing school kitchen staff with additional training and ideas. Some states – Vermont is one – are already doing such things. They’ve already integrated professional development courses in the schools. We’d like to try that here.”

What are the next school districts to join in?

“Right now, for efficiency, we’re targeting Highway 61 and 82. So, we’ll be looking to work all the way from Desoto County all the way down to Indianola. Eventually, we’ll hit Vicksburg. Along Highway 82, it’ll be Greenville to Greenwood.”

Betz has already spoken with officials in the Indianola and Leland school districts. “They’re on board. There’s a tomato farmer in the area that grows in the hoop or greenhouses. He’s connected with those two districts and they’re open to getting other products from other farmers.”

School gardens and greenhouses on campus are another aspect of the effort.

“It’s very important that students have the opportunity for hands-on education. A group around Batesville, the Tri-County Agricultural Coop, has allotted small garden grants for schools. They’d like to do that in some of the schools they’d like to sell to and mentor. Already there are hoop or greenhouses at some of the schools and those grants will allow the schools to develop their gardens even more.”