Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Canned and frozen food industries try to unseat fresh produce in school lunch program for the poor

The federal government spends more than $16 billion each year on school meals, and lobbyists for competing food industries want a piece of that pie. Or a piece of that fruit. At the center of contention is the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, a successful $177 million initiative that makes sure kids in even the poorest schools get fresh produce every day. In 2008, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa got Congress to say that the produce must be fresh -- a move that displeased lobbyists for makers of processed food. "This fall, with Congress likely to take up legislation to reauthorize child nutrition programs, the canned and frozen lobbies believe it’s their moment to change the rules—and the retired Harkin won’t be there to stop them this time," Helena Bottemiller Evich reports for Politico.

The lobbyists insist that fruits and vegetables in all forms are healthy choices, which is mostly true, but supporters of the initiative say that kids are much more likely to make a habit of eating fruits and vegetables in any form if they're first introduced to the fresh version. "Harkin argues that the goal of the program is to introduce kids to fresh fruits and vegetables, period. Some kids, particularly in high-poverty areas, had never seen a fresh pear or carrots with the stems on, or even fresh grapes, before getting the snack program at their school," Evich reports. Federal expenditures on fresh produce are vanishingly small, accounting for less than 2 percent of the $670 million the Department of Agriculture spent on fruit and vegetable commodities in 2014.

The outcome of the jostling is uncertain, though the lobbyists have some supporters. "Reps. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) this week introduced a bill that would expand the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program to include frozen, canned, dried and pureed fruits and vegetables," Evich reports. "The effort already has the support of a number of key Republicans and Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), an influential member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, which is working on a broader bill to reauthorize child nutrition programs."

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