K-12 Best Practice: Frozen, Fresh or Canned?

Mar 08, 2019

K-12 Best Practice: Frozen, Fresh or Canned?

Popeye nailed it in 1929 when he started telling generations of kids to eat their spinach if they wanted to be strong!

We now know even more about the value of fruits and vegetables in children's diets—not just vitamins and minerals, but fiber and antioxidants. Starting a life-long habit of eating fruits and vegetables in childhood leads to healthy eating as adults.

So, in school foodservice, serving plenty of vegetables is a given. You want high quality to preserve those vitamins and minerals while staying on budget and avoiding waste. What works for you and your students? Fresh? Canned? Frozen?

The three big questions for school foodservice are:

  • Which fit you operationally?

  • Which give you the best value and keep your budget on track?

  • Which are the kids going to like and actually eat?

Fresh: Delivers the most nutritional value… or does it?

Most of us think that fresh can deliver the most nutrition and value. But fresh isn't always that fresh! Fresh vegetables are picked, wait several days for transit, make it to a warehouse where there may be a few more days, then into your facility, for several more days before serving. Nutrition and flavor definitely get lost in this delay, along with some inevitable spoilage.1

Still, two-thirds of parents, in a 2017 study commissioned by the USDA indicated that they preferred fresh over canned, frozen or dried vegetables.2 And fresh is more expensive than frozen or canned, simply because of the immediacy and storage needs of fresh produce.

To reduce your costs for fresh, check into the USDA/DoD Fresh program.3 Using the web-based Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Order Receipt System (FFAVORS), schools can use entitlement money to purchase fresh produce from a weekly updated online catalog. Produce can be local or from all over the United States.

Is your school district participating in the Farm to School program? The Farm to School Census tells us that 42% of school districts participate! 4 This USDA program includes grant monies to support local farms and facilitates schools' ability to source produce locally.

Not sure how to start? Vermont Feed has developed a complete guide to getting started. >> Download the Guide for Farm to School Community Action Planning.

Thinking about a school garden? These gardens are great for teaching about the science of food, sustainability, and giving children pride in a shared accomplishment. But they also require lots of logistics and cooperation between teachers, administrators, parents and can really use local master gardener volunteers. You're likely to get some useable produce, but limited in variety and seasonality, of course. The USDA Food and Nutrition Service School Gardening web pages offer lots of information and tips on considerations and how to get started. 5

Sure, fresh produce is great! But it isn't necessarily the most economical nor the most nutritious. Other drawback to consider include:

  • Fresh is labor-intensive with plenty of cleaning, trimming, chopping and cutting

  • Fresh variety is limited by the growing seasons

  • Fresh is often harvested prior to peak ripeness to extend shelf life, reducing its taste, texture and appeal

  • Fresh produce significant waste due to trimming and unusable items, as well as spoilage

Frozen: Saving nutrients, saving prep time, reducing waste

Frozen, on the other hand, is harvested closer to peak ripeness, prepped and frozen quickly after harvest. Nutrition, taste and economy are preserved.

Serving any avocados these days? Simplot has done an analysis of fresh versus our chilled/frozen avocados, and the results may be surprising. Using fresh avocados means a loss of 45% between the pit, the peel, loss of moisture and spoilage. And about 12 minutes of labor time for every three pounds of avocados.

Frozen vegetables give you:

  • Flexibility to use only what is needed, preserving extra for another day

  • Year-round availability

  • Great taste and texture

  • Budgeting you can count on

  • 100% usability

Canned: Shelf stable, but limited in taste, texture, color

Like frozen, canned vegetables are usually harvested at peak of ripeness, but are further processed than frozen.Blanching, use of salt, water or syrup (to retard spoilage) and other additives mean less fresh tasting. Few canned vegetables (corn and beets are the exceptions) retain their original appetizing color.The extra weight from canning material and packing liquid can also mean a higher cost for the final usable product.The biggest advantage to using canned is that canned is highly shelf stable and requires no refrigeration. But then, there is the issues of recycling the packaging.

The best options for your vegetable sourcing

Some items just don't work any way but fresh! Salad makings, lettuce and tomato for sandwiches, vegetable sticks as snacks. Fresh is great, and you may be able to incorporate innovative programs from the USDA to order fresh fruits and veggies, saving on your budget, serving colorful and appetizing meals and providing the kind of nutrition your students need.

But frozen is great too. Simplot's frozen vegetables are harvested at peak ripeness and processed shortly after harvest, locking in nutrition, texture and color. And frozen products are available year round, with no seasonality issues, keeping your menus popping with color, freshness and variety. 

Livestrong.com, Fresh Versus Frozen Produce: Which is Healthier? https://www.livestrong.com/article/71064-fresh-versus-frozen-produce-which-healthier/

2017 Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program The Evidence is Clear: Fresh Works https://www.unitedfresh.org/content/uploads/2014/07/FFVP-One-Pager-2017.pdf

United States Department of Agriculture Department of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program https://www.fns.usda.gov/fdd/usda-dod-fresh-fruit-and-vegetable-program

2015 Farm to School Census https://farmtoschoolcensus.fns.usda.gov/

USDA Food and Nutrition Service School Gardening https://www.fns.usda.gov/school-gardening