Columbus City Schools unveiled a $100,000 apple-slicing machine Sept. 11 that district leaders believe will increase the 3 million Ohio apples a year it buys from small orchards across the state.

The new machine, which slices two apples at a time in a mechanical chamber, will help make healthful eating more appealing to the district's more than 50,000 students, district officials said. The device is in the district's Downtown Food Services Production Center and was funded by a USDA Farm to School grant.

Columbus schools' decision to commit to buying only Ohio apples is paying off for Quarry Hill Orchards in Berlin Heights, which is about 15 miles southeast of Cedar Point amusement park.

"Ohio, in general, produces a small amount of apples," compared to states like Washington and Pennsylvania, said Brooke Gammie, whose husband's grandparents started the 90-acre orchard near Lake Erie. "So we're kind of a blip on the radar."

But Quarry Hill Orchards and other small- and medium-size Ohio apple orchards have been landing ever-larger contracts as they supply the state's largest school district by working through a cooperative, the Fruit Growers Marketing Association based in Newcomerstown.

"On a scale this big, I think this is the only place that it is happening" in Ohio, Gammie said of the district's in-state apple purchases. "But I think Columbus is setting an example. I think it will start to happen more now."

Columbus City Schools will pump about $680,000 into the Ohio economy by purchasing apples this year, said Joe Brown, the district's food-services director.

With the new slicer, those numbers are set to rise, he said. The district knows from testing that, by slicing the apples rather than serving them whole, children eat more of them, Brown said. "They eat what they take, and they take more."

After being sliced, the apple slivers are conveyed to a packager, who scoops them into plastic bags to be sent out to schools. The cores are composted.

Brown estimates that by simply slicing the fruit, student apple consumption could triple or quadruple. Though that might prove overly optimistic, he said, "We absolutely expect to use more apples this way."

The district's push to serve Ohio apples began a few years ago when someone asked Brown what percentage of the apples it served were grown in-state.

"I didn't know the answer, but I swore it had to be some. We produce a lot of apples in Ohio, so I knew it had to be some," he said.

But when he asked the supplier, he found out there weren't any Ohio-grown apples being served. They were all coming in from the state of Washington, Brown said.

"So we said 'Why? Can we change that?' " he said. "So we worked with buyers, and they said, 'Yeah, we can get Ohio apples.' And it turns out they're cheaper."

By buying in-state, the district is saving about 9 percent over the $23 a bushel it previously paid when all its apples had to be shipped from Washington, Brown said.

The program is expanding to more than just apples. Quarry Hill Orchards recently started providing the district with pears, and the contract is expected to grow rapidly, Gammie said.

"We're going to have to reserve our entire pear harvest for this account," she said.

bbush@dispatch.com

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