USDA school foods program boosts Maine wild blueberry sales

BY Maureen Milliken

Photo / Ted Axelrod,
Photo / Ted Axelrod,
Maine's wild blueberry harvests of up to 100 million pounds a year represent a $250 million industry, according to the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine. But prices have plummeted, causing some Maine growers to sell their barrens.

A program to get Maine wild blueberries into public schools increased sales by 57% in 2017, despite a crop shortfall this year, and the news has energized a 2018 marketing push.
“We’ve expanded the program and our efforts, and as a result have seen overall sales increase,” Nancy McBrady, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, said Friday morning.
Maine Wild Blueberries are available in 22 U.S. states through the USDA’s National School Lunch Program, up from 13 in 2016. According to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service sales data, the commission’s national Wild Blueberry School Foodservice Program expanded from 1.18 million pounds sold in 2016 to 2.78 million pounds sold in 2017. The commission represents more than 500 wild blueberry growers in Maine, which is the world’s largest producer of wild blueberries.
The commission said the news is “a bright spot,” after this year’s crop of 65 million pounds came in well below 2016’s almost 102 million pounds
The lower 2017 crop was because of factors including lack of rain, as well as surplus supplies from recent years, which spurred a decrease in prices, prompting some farmers to scale back, industry experts said in November.
The news of the school foodservice program success comes as the commission plans an enhanced advertising strategy in 2018, including expanded participation in national conferences and tradeshows and a targeted list of new prospects, including cultivated blueberry strongholds, California and New Jersey.
“We are energized by our successes with public schools,” McBrady said in the news release. She said the commission has set “an ambitious goal” of increasing public school sales of frozen Maine Wild Blueberries to 5 million pounds within the next two to three years.
McBrady said the commission has employed a key strategy that differentiates wild blueberries from cultivated blueberries, emphasizing their taste and nutritional advantages and new USDA yield data, that demonstrates that one pound of frozen Maine wild blueberries provides 25% more servings than the same weight of frozen cultivated blueberries.
“Each day, nearly 15 million breakfasts and 30 million lunches are served in over 100,000 U.S. public and private schools,” said McBrady. “We believe that Maine’s wild blueberries with their superior taste, twice the antioxidants and kid appeal should have a permanent place at the table.”
With 36 U.S. states buying blueberries overall in the USDA school program, Maine’s wild blueberry presence in 22 states represents well more 50% reach in states using wild or cultivated blueberries, McBrady said. States that began purchasing the wild berries 2017 were Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington.