Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014
Agri Leader

FDACS 'Food Connect' targets school food buyers


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A new and innovative web site developed by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), in partnership with University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), will help the state's farmers sell to local school districts and individual schools.

The site - FloridaFoodConnect.com - is now in the early stages of becoming fully functional. It is based on technology initially developed by the University of Illinois and subsequently licensed by UF IFAS for deployment in Florida.

FDACS took an early interest in the project when Agriculture Commissioner Adam H. Putnam led an effort for his department to assume control of Florida's school nutrition program, explained Robin Safley, director of FDACS's Division of Food, Nutrition and Wellness.

"The Farm to School program immediately became one of our top priorities," Safley said. "And we knew that any strategy that we would deploy had to have a technology component."

That need led Safley and her team to the original University of Illinois database and marketing engine, known as Market Maker. It was designed to connect farmers with a broad range of buyers across the entire U.S. It was not specifically intended for selling to local schools.

"IFAS was also facing some challenges in getting farmers to go online and use Market Maker," Safley said. "And they had done some analysis of why it wasn't working and when I looked at it, I also realized it was just too cumbersome. I realized that it needed to be turned into something that was really user friendly."

That became the starting point for the redesign and implementation of it, with the goal of repurposing it for selling to schools under the banner of FDACS's Farm to School program.

Now, the newly redesigned site will allow both farmers and school districts or individual schools to create profiles that detail what a producer has to sell or a buyer wants to acquire. The underlying purpose of the site is to easily connect sellers and buyers.

"For farmers, it means you can post that you grow carrots and cabbage and that you have the ability to cut, clean and bag your products and ship them," Safley said. "And then the system finds matches for what you are selling and can do, and what buyers want to buy."

The official launch of Florida Food Connect will be at the annual meeting of the Florida School Nutrition Association in Orlando April 23-26. FDACS will host hands-on demonstrations for school districts and school administrators.

In addition, the use of the site by farmers to sell to schools and other customers such as restaurants or food distributors will be promoted at the major events and annual meetings of Florida agricultural organizations such as the Florida Citrus Show, Florida Tomato Institute, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Florida Ag Expo, and Florida Farm Bureau Federation.

Although the site will allow farmers to sell their products to a range of buyers across the U.S. and around the world, a filter has been built into the system that encourages buyers to focus on Florida products. However, Safley said, if buyers choose to look for products outside Florida, they will be able to do so because the underlying database is very robust and comprehensive.

Matt Carter, operator of 25-acre Carter Farms in Escambia County, is among the early adopters of Florida Food Connect. His primary cold weather crops are cabbage, broccoli, collard greens, turnips and kale. During the rest of the year, Carter Farms also produces spring cabbage, sweet corn, peas, butter beans, squash and zucchini.

About 90 percent of his products are sold within Florida, Carter said.

"We signed up for Food Connect as another way to find new customers for our products," he

said. "I learned about it at a conference at the University of Florida. It's free and it offers a big base of market reach, so we decided to give it a try."

Selling to local schools is also a key goal for Carter. "I've been working with the Escambia County School Board and we are working on getting our tomatoes into their schools this coming [school] year," Carter said, adding that is also interested in developing more customers among food distributors and retailers.

He believes the new web site will help him expand his operations and grow his business.

He also had high praise for the ongoing innovations being developed and promoted by Putnam.

"I think what he and FDACS are doing is great," Carter said. "They're creating new avenues for small farmers to be able to get out there and sell their products. They're creating more awareness about Florida farmers and where your food comes from. And it's especially great that they're doing that within the school system and helping farmers sell their products directly to schools."

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