Picking apples in a bag, instead of picking through produce-section piles, can help put locally grown produce in school cafeterias.

Picking apples in a bag, instead of picking through produce-section piles, can help put locally grown produce in school cafeterias.

Sales of organic Fuji apples in 3-pound bags bearing the Farm to School logo benefit a nonprofit educational effort that began about a year ago in the Rogue Valley. Farm to School's apple program is a partnership between produce distributor Organically Grown Co. in Eugene and about a dozen grocers, four of them in the Rogue Valley.

The latest store to sign on is Sherm's Food 4 Less in Medford, which started stocking the bagged apples Friday. Other participating local grocers are Ashland and Medford food co-ops and Grants Pass Farmers Market.

"We like to support the local farmers, and also we care about the children eating healthy," says Bob Ames, general manager of Sherm's Thunderbird Market.

Although the program's apples are grown in Washington, not Oregon, Farm to School promotes local agriculture both by bringing students to farms and working to incorporate local harvests into school-cafeteria meals.

The sales of apples, says organizer Tom Lively, aren't merely a short-term fundraiser but long-term marketing toward grocers' next generation of customers.

"It just really turns 'em on, and I think it can be a game-changer," says Lively of introducing kids to food on the farm. Senior account representative for Organically Grown, Lively also served on the board of Willamette Food and Farm Coalition.

Organically Grown makes a $3 handling fee on each 36-pound box of apples containing a dozen bags. Retailers purchase each box for $25 and sell each bag for $3.99, donating 70 percent of the profits to Farm to School programs.

Grocers raised about $5,000 in a short, test run between April and June last year. This year, customers have nine months instead of three to purchase the apples at four stores locally, instead of solely Ashland Food Co-op, which launched last year's pilot and gave all of its profits on the apples to Farm to School.

Even donating 70 percent of profits is a "huge thing to ask" of grocers, says Lively. Funds raised — when penciled out per apple — are more than the government provides to Oregon schools for each meal, says Tracy Harding, executive director of Farm to School. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is preparing to announce the availability of competitive Farm to School grants worth up to $100,000, she says.

The fundraiser will continue through June with apples distributed based on consumer demand, says Lively. Apple prices have dropped enough recently that customers likely will pay about a dollar less per bag, he adds.

For more information, see www.rvfarm2school.org.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com.