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Grimmway's Lisa McNeece Sees Salad Bars As Part Of Bigger Picture For Industry

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, March 18, 2013

Lisa McNeece
Vice President of Foodservice
and Industrial Sales
Grimmway Farms
Bakersfield, California

Q: What inspired you to take a co-chair position on this aggressive campaign in California to garner funding for 350 school salad bars in such a short timeframe?

A: I actually sit on the main board of United Fresh. Lorelei DiSogra and Tom Stenzel asked if I would co-chair the Let’s Move Salad Bars to California Schools campaign. I was very honored to be asked to join Dick Spezzano, Karen Caplan, and Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin, all wonderful, unique individuals. Each adds individual perspective and insight to what’s important, but we all agree in the need to increase children’s fruit and vegetable consumption.

It’s a here-and-now moment to capitalize on Michelle Obama’s national Let’s Move initiative. Schools lack the fruits and vegetables that should be a staple of anyone’s diet, especially children’s.

Grimmway participates in the School Nutrition Association conference, held annually in July; this year it’s in Kansas City. Years ago, Joe Stubbs from Sunkist, definitely a visionary man before his time, led efforts to make sure produce played an important role at the conference, and the produce row is a strong avenue of this show.

Q: How does your participation at the School Nutrition Association conference connect to the California campaign’s goals?

A: I think we’re on the cusp of what’s happening nationwide to address public health issues, obesity, diabetes and other diseases, in the face of high healthcare costs. Research shows that increasing produce consumption is a significant step in this fight. What better place to start than at schools? 

While it’s harder to prove, I like to think salad bars in schools make kids smarter. Yes it’s anecdotal, as well from what I’ve read, that school officials say they see students more focused with more energy and this improves their potential in class.

Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools is a winning program for students as well as for growers, shippers and the communities they serve. The more information we can provide to spur the campaign, the more we will continue to make everyone healthier.

I’m very excited at what United Fresh has done as an industry — which is not taking away from PMA, which contributed $100,000, a huge amount, to salad bars nationwide.

In our California campaign, we set a goal of getting donations for 350 salad bars by May. Our co-chairs have been very involved since the Washington Public Policy Conference in early fall last year. The momentum is there, and the excitement.

Q: What strategies do you undertake to generate funding?

A: We’re not just looking at the industry for support. We’re reaching out to corporations like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Coca-Cola and Pepsi. We’re working closely with several different companies. So many corporations have broadened their product lines to meet consumer demands for healthier, more nutritious alternatives. For instance, Coca-Cola owns Odwalla Juices, and Pepsi sells Naked Juices. Therefore, it’s important for them to get involved.

Each co-chair has certain organizations they are speaking with and pursuing. We are approaching both traditional and non-traditional companies for funding. Anyone interested in donating or learning more about ways to help can go to the United Fresh web page and contact any one of us, and we’ll be happy to assist in anyway we can.

Q: As co-chairs on this campaign, you set demanding goals. How do you integrate this with your work at Grimmway?

A: I’m very fortunate to work for a company that allows me to be involved with our industry. Just from simple conversations, my work evolves from selling carrots to creating new product lines to salad bars in schools. My job lends strength to work all different angles. As VP of Foodservice Sales, I see salad bars definitely as a big part of our business.  

We slice and dice carrots every which way.  Schools continue to increase their purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables, not only for the salad bars, but also because of the revised nutrition standards for school lunch and breakfast programs. Districts have more funding. The farm bill is back in Congress and hopefully it will continue to increase funding for the schools.

Q: Do you view salad bars then as one component of a bigger picture? How does Grimmway accommodate the different aspects within its product development?

A: When I’m visiting customers and talking about ways of increasing carrot consumption, I look at the school side, the salad bars, the lunch menus and the after-school programs.  Snack packs can add value at a cost schools can afford.

It’s all about costs when dealing with schools. We must consider the need when developing product lines. There are different forms of carrots in salad bars; you’ll see baby carrots, shredded forms for salads, carrot chips, and coin cut as well. It’s what each school wants to see in its salad bar.

What fascinates me is the range of items now being offered in salad bars. I’ve seen kiwis and mangos. Having kids explore different tastes and textures is eye-opening for them. When they try these items at school, they tell their parents, who in turn go out and buy them, and it results in more retail sales.

Carrots are already a staple in diets because they’re sweet. We have a yellow carrot out there now, which is fun and exciting, and we are continuing to work on different items to keep kids interested.

Q: Do you work with schools to overcome any logistical or operational issues with their salad bars? What kind of relationship-building is involved to insure the success of the program?

A: Logistics are fairly simple. We work with several of the major broadliners that work with the schools. It’s a true partnership. You have to have partnerships that you align with. This business is about relationships.

A lot of school directors don’t have travel budgets. It’s important for us to go to the schools and participate in the School Nutrition Association conference.

We’re going to have a press event at United’s upcoming convention in May. It will highlight Team California for Healthy Kids’ goals and our collaboration. We will also recognize the schools and their leadership in increasing kids’ produce intake and all the benefits.  

We want everyone at this press conference so that we can get the word out and keep the program vital and long-lasting. It’s important to follow up and be sure schools are utilizing their donated salad bars and they are not in a corner collecting dust. Whole Foods has been a huge partner in this program. We couldn’t have done this without them.

I reflect upon all the special times in this whole campaign. When you believe in something, it’s not hard to go to donors. Dick Spezzano is our champion when it comes to raising funds. I’ll tell him I just got a donor willing to give $5,000, and he comes right back… they should be giving $10,000! 

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