News | Jan. 1, 2017

Collards to Kale

By Beth Reece


Ken Wilmoth is browsing the produce department at his local Wal-Mart when he catches a woman suspiciously eyeing blood oranges. She picks one up, squeezes it, sniffs and drops it back in the bin.

“Ma’am, they’re supposed to look like that,” Wilmoth pipes up. “When you cut them, they’re going to be blood red on the inside. They’re really sweet and have twice the vitamin C as your California oranges. Don’t just look at them and assume they’re bad.”

He also tells shoppers how to select a ripe cantaloupe or honeydew and shares his recipe for microwaved sweet onions. Wilmoth has loved fruits and vegetables since spending his childhood summers hawking zucchini and cabbage from his dad’s roadside produce stand. Now he shares his passion and knowledge with military dining facilities and school cafeterias on behalf of Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support’s Subsistence supply chain.

Based in Gloucester, Virginia, Wilmoth leads one of six garrison feeding teams that carry out the Department of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. Each team covers a geographic area and includes a supervisor, a group of tailored vendor logistics specialists that handle contracting and cataloging issues at DLA Troop Support’s headquarters in Philadelphia, and field reps who monitor quality and customer satisfaction.

Customers include dining facilities, schools and child care centers on military installations, as well as ships, Veterans Affairs hospitals, Native American reservations, federal prisons and civilian elementary schools. Troops are DLA’s No. 1 priority, but supporting schools is more of a logistical challenge, compared to other customers, Wilmoth said.

“You may go on a base and have three to 23 dining halls, but one school system might have 20 or 120 schools. Also, schools aren’t required to participate. They may enroll one year and choose not to the following year,” he said.

Schoolhouse Subsistence

After studies in the early 1990s confirmed children weren’t eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables, Congress gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture the responsibility of getting more produce into schools through the National School Lunch Program. USDA wasn’t set up to handle produce; however, the closest it got to fresh was canned ham or peaches in corn syrup. State commodity officials like Gary Gay were skeptical.

“Could we really do it? We didn’t have any reference point to lean on,” said Gay, director of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division.

DLA had proven its ability to provide fresh produce to service members around the globe, so USDA officials turned to DLA’s subsistence experts for help. Their conclusion: It didn’t make sense to copy something that was already being done. “Let’s partner,” USDA officials said.

In 1994, DoD and DLA agreed with USDA to a pilot project in which DLA supplied fresh produce to schools in eight states, the same way it did military installations. USDA officials worked with dieticians and DLA reps to determine what items would be sent to which schools and when. The first year, schools received more than $3 million in produce. Parents and teachers praised the program, and in 2010 it was expanded to include the 48 contiguous states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Guam.

“It really shows where two federal agencies can work together toward a mutual outcome,” said Patricia Scott, DLA Troop Support’s chief of garrison feeding. “This is also a great benefit to schools because we provide all the customer service, contracting oversight, invoice reconciliation and audits of prime-vendor facilities.”

DLA Troop Support expects to provide more than $234 million in produce to students in about 12,000 nationwide schools during the 2016-2017 school year. Changes in DLA’s business practices and the “buy local” trend have contributed to the program’s growth, Wilmoth said.

Yesterday’s Produce Buyers

When schools began using DoD’s fresh produce program, DLA had 14 defense subsistence offices scattered throughout the country. Office staff received orders daily and arranged deliveries to customers, while former produce buyers like Wilmoth scoured the states for quality vendors.

“We’d pretty much just go out and pop in on them, tell them we were seeking new suppliers who wanted to bid on business with DoD. At the time, we looked for clean and reputable small business vendors that had a full line of fresh fruits and vegetables on hand,” Wilmoth said.

DSOs then created blanket purchase agreements for reoccurring orders with qualified vendors. For Wilmoth’s team, which covered Southeast states from North Carolina to Florida plus the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, the focus on locally produced items began with berries.

“I was at on one of the schools inspecting a delivery when I noticed California strawberries coming off the truck. They were perfectly fine strawberries, but why were our vendors delivering California strawberries when we had real pretty strawberries growing right up the road from the school? It didn’t make sense,” he said.

As a proponent of small family farms, North Carolina Department of Agriculture officials supported the idea of putting locally grown berries in the state’s schools. Then again, the question: Could DLA and NCDA do it using existing cold-storage warehouses and tractor trailers? 

“I believed we could teach them how to handle fresh products,” Wilmoth said. “And I knew if they could do strawberries, they could do anything.”

Going Local

Wilmoth taught NCDA officials about temperature control and how to haul produce without damaging or spoiling it. When local strawberries were finally put on the order list, schools in the state requested 1,000 cases. North Carolina farmers gave them Sweet Charlies, a variety known for their sweet taste and deep red color.

“The first lesson we learned was that although the Sweet Charlie is an excellent berry, it didn’t have the shelf life needed to support the school lunch program. Since customers wanted the berries, we had to find the right solution, so we worked closely with growers in the state to find a variety with the same great taste and a longer shelf life,” Gay said.

This school year, North Carolina schools are scheduled to receive about 12,000 cases of strawberries and more than $1 million  worth of other locally grown produce, including sweet potatoes and broccoli. All of those items are produced by farmers with a USDA Good Agricultural Practices certification to assure they’re produced, packed, handled and stored as safely as possible to minimize food-safety hazards.

“It makes you smile, because the kids are getting fresh produce that a lot of them don’t ever get at home. We’ve heard some of them say they’d never had fruit as common as peaches until they got one through this program,” Wilmoth said.

And since items offered in North Carolina’s local Farm to School program are ordered in June for the entire school year based on pricing forecasts, farmers can better plan their crops.

“We believe the local program has helped create a new, dependable customer for small farmers and might have even influenced some of them to continue farming, he added.

While schools can develop their own implementation plans, Wilmoth took what he learned in North Carolina to states like Mississippi and Alabama, both of which now have successful programs.

Long-term Contracts

DLA Troop Support closed its defense subsistence offices in 2007 and moved to long-term contracts with prime vendors. The contracts last four to five years and the weekly catalogs are managed by Scott’s six teams in DLA Troop Support’s garrison feeding division. In North Carolina, for example, one vendor, Foster-Caviness, offers a full line of fresh fruits and vegetables to all of DLA’s customers in the state. Product is brought into the vendor’s cold-storage facility in Greensboro from sellers across the country and includes locally grown items delivered by NCDA. In many cases, fruits and vegetables are harvested one day and delivered the next.

“When it arrives here, we’re probably picking off the pallet that night or the next morning. Most of our products are turned around in anywhere from hours to three days, except hearty items like potatoes and onions that can last six or seven days with no problems,” said Foster-Caviness Vice President Steve Johnson. Every member of the company is trained to inspect items for quality as they’re received, stored and delivered to customers.

The vendor in North Carolina delivers produce once a week to about 1,300 schools. Because the schools are different sizes, the vendor must sometimes break down large quantities into smaller units. One school might request a 10-pound box of bananas instead of a case; another will order a 2-pound bag of salad, rather than waste a 20-pound bag. And because many schools lack the cafeteria staff and time to cut or measure proper portion sizes, NCDA, DLA and the prime vendor agreed to provide pre-cut items like apple slices and prepared salads.

Foster-Caviness also works with DLA and NCDA to pique students’ interest in new varieties of produce entering the market, such as pluots, a plum-apricot hybrid that’s 75 percent plum. New ways of preparing vegetables have also increased the demand for things like cauliflower and kale.

“We’ve sold kale for years, but it wasn’t always a hot item. This vegetable that I grew up seeing as just a garnish on salad bars is now considered a superfood, so we’ve worked with farmers to increase the amount we have available for order,” said Foster-Caviness President Paul Lieb.

Providing produce to schools wasn’t initially appealing, he admitted, because the business volume is small compared to what his company achieves with large food chains, such as Outback Steakhouse. However, school administrators’ commitment to serving nutritional, fresh produce has been an inspiration to vendors and farmers, Lieb said.

“Our initial goal was to increase students’ consumption of fruits and vegetables, and that’s exactly what we’ve been able to do. But what’s made it work is everybody’s involved. It wouldn’t have happened with one piece of the puzzle missing,” Wilmoth added.

Military Customers

Although schools order all produce not part of local programs one week in advance, military customers order three times a week and receive deliveries Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. All customers have more than 100 items to choose from, and DLA can usually accommodate requests for additional items, said Pam Hamlett, a customer support specialist based in Wilmington, North Carolina, who has supported DLA customers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee since 2008.

“During the holidays, we get a lot of requests for items like turnips that aren’t regularly in the catalog, so we add them during that particular time of year,” she said.

Many dining facilities also use fresh produce in elaborate displays that include baskets and flowers carved from things like radishes, peppers and carrots. 

Soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, are well-fed, appreciative recipients of DLA’s support, said Richard Barbee, a subsistence supply manager for the installation.

“There’s never been a time when we’ve asked for something we needed and didn’t get it,” he said. “We have, on special occasions, asked DLA to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables to a unit away from home base. They’re always on time, and the quality is always good.”

And like chain restaurants that boast of their ingredients being locally grown, dining facility managers have started to spotlight items on the serving line that are from nearby farmers. Foodservice specialists at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, even have a guest-chef program that connects the state’s agriculture and military industries. The program brings a locally renowned chef on base to help military staff plan and prepare a special menu based on locally sourced ingredients. Chili-lime corn on the cob, black-eyed-pea salad, roasted sweet-potato salad, kale slaw and watermelon pico de gallo are among previous offerings.

“Anybody and everybody on the installation is invited, and I can say it’s absolutely delicious. Just looking at the menu will make you hungry. It’s one way of giving troops something different,” Hamlett said.

Partnering with local farmers is also important to installation officials because it helps preserve agricultural lands around military bases, Wilmoth added.

“They want the farms around them to thrive so we can use that space for training. Cows don’t complain about our jets and airplane noises,” he said.

The emphasis on fresh, local produce has also made its way to service members stationed in places like Africa and Afghanistan. More than 20 varieties of fruits and vegetables were purchased from Afghan farmers in summer 2014, for example. Buying overseas promotes development of the private sector, supports economic development and has a tactical benefit, military leaders say.

“Local fresh fruits and vegetables are a way to keep farmers on the farm and keep them out of the improvised explosive device factories,” said Army Brig. Gen. Steven Shapiro, former commander of DLA Troop Support.

Hamlett and Wilmoth agree that providing a variety of produce is equally important, whether customers are young, impressionable students learning to make healthy food choices or service members who train, eat and sleep like athletes.

“It’s been proven that everyone should eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables in a wide range of colors. To achieve that, variety is necessary, and not everyone likes the same thing,” said Wilmoth, who takes pride in introducing his four grandchildren to unusual things like ugli fruit and purple sweet potatoes.

“Some are winners; some are losers,” he said. “But you’ll never know if you like them until you give them a try.”