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Merced County high schools use local produce for school lunches

Ag Link lead driver Francisco Ramirez, 38, of Livingston delivers fresh bell peppers and tomatoes from Live Oak Farms in Le Grand to Merced High School on Wednesday. Ag Link connects farmers and producers with school food service programs to provide fresh local produce.
Ag Link lead driver Francisco Ramirez, 38, of Livingston delivers fresh bell peppers and tomatoes from Live Oak Farms in Le Grand to Merced High School on Wednesday. Ag Link connects farmers and producers with school food service programs to provide fresh local produce. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

High school students throughout the county are getting a taste of a locally grown “perfect summer” in their school lunches.

Perfect Summer is the name of Live Oak Farms’ sweet red and yellow peppers, delivered to Merced Union High School District campuses Wednesday. At Merced High School, the peppers are used in wraps and at cafeteria condiment stations.

“We’re all about healthy food for students,” said Bill Dunlavy, director of school nutrition and fitness at MUHSD. “And we want to support local farmers the best we can.”

Live Oak and the school district are connected through Ag Link, a business that facilitates buying and selling of fresh, local produce. Ag Link helps schools provide healthy lunches to students through local farmers at a reasonable price.

“It’s an opportunity for us to reach out to the communities that are so important to us at Live Oak,” said Ed Beckman, chief operations officer at Le Grand-based Live Oak. “We think it’s important that our kids have a broader selection of produce at schools.”

We think it’s important that our kids have a broader selection of produce at schools.

Ed Beckman, chief operations officer at Live Oak Farms in Le Grand

Ag Link has been working with schools for four years, said Jana Nairn, the company’s owner and CEO. School districts in Planada, Ballico and Winton also get their produce through Ag Link.

The peppers and tomatoes delivered to Merced High on Wednesday not only provide healthy lunches for students, they are extremely fresh and cost-efficient, Dunlavy said. The peppers were picked Monday, packed Tuesday and available for students to eat Wednesday.

“A good reason to buy produce directly from the farmer is it’s better quality, has a longer shelf life, and it’s a better value and provides savings for the school,” he said.

And the students love the wraps with the peppers. “(The wraps) are a hit here,” said Sylvia Gracia , an assistant supervisor in the cafeteria at Merced High. “We didn’t think they would be.”

Gracia said it’s not hard to get students to eat healthy foods such as fruits and veggies. “If one tries it, they’ll all do it.”

“The kids really go for that,” added Toni Herrera, a Merced High cafeteria supervisor. “The local produce is fresher. It looks more healthy. Everybody’s on a health kick.”

The students may love the fresh produce, but they may not yet realize it’s locally grown. Dunlavy said the district is working on a marketing strategy to educate students on food they get in the cafeteria. Students will be part of the marketing campaign, which is planned to include digital displays and a smartphone app.

Without Ag Link, Beckman said, it would be impossible for Live Oak to sell produce to schools, especially local ones.

“It’s a win-win,” he said. “It’s great for the schools, Ag Link, and those of us at Live Oak.”

Brianna Vaccari: 209-385-2477

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