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Sweet surprise for school lunch trays | News

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Sweet surprise for school lunch trays
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Largo, Florida -- Students will see a sweet surprise on their school lunch trays in Pinellas County on Monday as thousands of fresh strawberries are served up for the first time.

Low strawberry prices meant the school district could snag an unprecedented deal on more than 500 flats of strawberries. Each flat cost less than $10 and carries eight sizable boxes of berries.

Frozen strawberries and small samplings of fresh ones have been offered to Pinellas County's students before, but this is the first time full servings of the fresh kids' favorite have been available.

Cafeteria teams can use the sweet berries as they choose -- in fruit cups or salads, in desserts, or by themselves, for example.

The big berry shipment coincides with a new initiative launched by the food services folks in Pinellas schools this year: On the traditional lunch serving line, students can take as many varieties of fruits and vegetables as they'd like.

Two types used to be the school district's limit, and two types is all the federal government's food assistance program will reimburse the district for.

But Pinellas Food Services Director Art Dunham said the importance of getting kids to eat those extra servings makes them worth the extra money spent.

Pinellas schools' cafeterias and food services rely on their own income to operate; they do not take any dollars from the school district's general budget.

There is a downside to the low price of strawberries.

Growers in Plant City and Polk County are worried they may not turn a profit on this year's important winter crop.

This year's harvest is much larger than expected, meaning turning a profit will be difficult. A warm winter in the Sunshine State has yielded a bumper crop of berries.

"We complained when it was too cold, and now we're complaining this year that it's too hot," said Ted Campbell of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. "It's a very challenging year."

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a pound of strawberries on March 2 was selling at major grocery stores for an average of $2.15 -- an eight-cent drop from the previous week and a 28-cent drop from last year at the same time.

Florida is the nation's biggest strawberry producer in January and February, while California is the largest in the spring. Florida takes advantage of its sunny weather and a unique harvest window -- November through February -- to sell berries worldwide.

Many of Florida's strawberries are grown in the fertile land in between Tampa and Orlando, and farmers have celebrated the end of the harvest with a festival since 1930.

In recent years, Florida farmers have grappled with extreme cold and lost crops, and 2010 was an especially bad year. But there's more to Florida's woes than weather.

"Because of the influx of Mexican berries, our prices have not gone up," said Peggy Parke, the Vice President of Parkesdale Farms in Dover. "Mexico just keeps pulling them over for low cost. I feel like the Mexican market has had a big effect on us this year as far as pricing."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that between Jan. 1 and last Thursday, Mexico shipped 190 million pounds of strawberries to the U.S. During the same time, Florida shipped 185 million pounds nationwide.

Campbell also said that several farmers added acreage this year, which contributed to the situation.

"The industry was pretty optimistic going into the start of this season, but it turned out not to be a highly profitable season," he said. "Some are struggling to make a profit. Some small players may not be able to survive."

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