Written by The Business Journal Staff
OK Produce CEO Brady Matoian said it’s his company’s mission to remedy this problem by bringing fresh produce to those who need it most.While the Central Valley is known for its bounty of fresh grown fruits and vegetables, many of its rural and low-income citizens don’t have easy access to produce.
As part of this mission, OK Produce supplies over 200 local WIC stores and reasonable retailers like Grocery Outlet, which is known for its low prices.
Now, OK Produce is teaming up with the Fresno County Office of Education [FCOE] to bring fruit and vegetables straight to consumers on school campuses via student-run produce stands.
The produce stands are set up by kids in afterschool programs and occur on different days and times depending on the campus. While OK Produce supplies the fruits and vegetables, as well as a cooler to keep them fresh, it is the kids who are responsible for setting up their display and selling the produce. The produce, Matoian said, is not donated but is sold to the afterschool program at OK Produce’s cost. The students are then given suggestions on how to mark-up the produce so some money is made for their operating costs. While some may view the model as a fundraiser, Matoian said it’s not intended to be.
“This is rooted specifically in finding a way to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables,” Matoian said.
“They may turn it into a quasi-fundraiser. but that is not what we’re trying to do. If we can all break even and bring families the best freshest products with the best flavor at the best price, that is the goal,” he added.
While getting kids and families to eat healthier is the goal for FCOE as well, representatives from the Department of Safe and Healthy Kids said the produce stand program has an added benefit of teaching kids business skills.
“They become business-savvy,” FCOE Safe and Healthy Kids program consultant Cyndi Dean said of the elementary-aged students participating in the program. “It is their project and they are in charge of all the marketing and advertising. OK Produce sends out merchandisers to help the students with layout and the students learn how produce should be displayed and what to do when you run out of certain items. They learn to read the list we receive from OK Produce. It has a lot of columns they need to refer to in order to understand what items were bought for and what they can sell them for. They also learn how to deal with money — basic accounting, making deposits and making change. They also learn to have face-to-face relationships with their customers.”
The program launched last spring with five school sites participating, one in Fresno and the others in rural cities in the county. Each site is unique with its own signage and items on display, and Dean said the kids take great pride in their work and the products they sell. The community, she said, is also responding positively to the produce stands.
“It is so well received within the community,” Dean said. “These are communities that don’t have access to these kinds of fresh fruit and vegetables, and some have to travel far just to get to a market. So having this produce at the school site and having it at a cost that is so much less then you would spend at a store is an awesome thing for these communities and they are thankful.”
Randy Mehrten, the senior director of the FCOE Department of Safe and Healthy Kids, said it’s not only about accessibility, but education in the community.
“So many of these small communities are referred to as food deserts because in order to get a banana, you have to buy it from the local mom and pop convenient store. And while they are doing their best, sometimes you go in there and look and think ‘yeah, I’m going to pass on that,’ so the very people who need to eat more produce per capita are eating less because what little they do have is so uninviting,” Mehrten said. “I think that produces this sense people have that fruits and vegetables aren’t very good, but they are and now parents and students can walk up to this stand, which is very professional looking, and they see these excited young people and the produce looks the same if not better than it would in a traditional store.”
Matoian said it’s all about changing the mindset and getting kids and their families in the habit of eating healthier.
“I want everyone to eat more produce and I want everyone to eat more kinds of fresh produce,” he said. “It can be organic and natural or not organic, I don’t care, I just want everyone to eat more fruits and vegetables.”
With the first five produce stands a success, Dean said FCOE and OK Produce are working together to bring the program to 30 school sites. Ultimately, she said, they hope to reach 100 school sites.