Small growers find marketing to local schools fruitful

As family farmers struggle to survive in a market increasingly dominated by large companies, a Fresno-based produce supplier has tapped into one possible solution — aggressive marketing to local schools.

In the 14 months since it was formed, a company called Food 4 Thought has grown from supplying fruit to a handful of schools to working with nearly two dozen family farmers and nearly 20 school districts across California.

It has been a whirlwind year for company founder Loren Werth. He has put 80,000 miles on his refrigerated truck supplying watermelon, peaches and organic plums to districts from Palm Springs to Roseville, near Sacramento. To keep up, he recently hired another driver.

The idea of marketing produce to schools isn't new, and other companies in the Valley — such as Fresno Produce Co. — have been doing it for years. But Werth's approach is different.

By collaborating with small growers, he has created a pipeline to sell fresh, locally grown fruits to schools that until now have generally relied on suppliers that usually just deliver food without a personal touch.

Now Werth counts school officials and farmers as believers. Among them is San Joaquin County apple farmer Paul Smit, who was having trouble finding buyers for his small apples.

Smaller-sized fruit doesn't sell at the grocery store and is often rejected, farmers say. Until now, most of Smit's small apples had gone to his cider mill. But he receives a much lower return when the apples are juiced rather than sold fresh.

"To be able to find someone to buy smaller-sized fruit for us is huge," said Smit, who grows Fuji, Pink Lady, Granny Smith and Royal Gala apples on his 160-acre ranch.

School nutritionists are happy, too.

"We used to get apples, but they were apples that were picked last year and held in storage," said Natasha Uhlik-Slebiss, a dietitian with Kings Canyon Unified in Reedley. "The flavor was not there, the freshness was not there, and the price wasn't always what we liked."

Uhlik-Slebiss said Werth's fruit is priced right, it's local and good quality. The district — which feeds 7,000 students — recently purchased oranges from a grower in Orange Cove.

"And the fruit was wonderful," she said. "He benefitted, and we benefitted."