By suggesting that the “fresh” be taken out of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program for schools, a draft of the 2012 farm bill from the U.S. House Agricultural Committee started ripples through the produce industry that promise to turn into a tsunami.
Officials with the United Fresh Produce Association, the Specialty Crop Farm Alliance, the Produce Marketing Association, Western Growers and other industry groups immediately began working to protect the exclusively fresh status of the program that provides $150 million annually so schools can buy extra fresh fruits and vegetable snacks.
The full House is scheduled to begin markup of the draft July 11. However, action could be delayed by a potential vote on whether to repeal President Obama’s health care reform legislation. At best, Congress has about six weeks available to act on the farm bill before members are expected to head home in October to run for re-election.
The August summer recess bisects those six weeks, making it even less likely that the legislation will make it through House floor debate, a House vote, a conference committee to resolve differences with the Senate version, and final votes in each chamber.
Still, produce industry leaders aren’t waiting to push back against the move to open the fresh produce program to frozen and canned products.
The House committee released the 557-page draft July 5. By the morning of July 6 Dennis Nuxoll, vice president of federal government affairs in the Washington, D.C., office of Western Growers, had already spent hours dissecting it.
“We are pleased by some policy changes and the funding of a couple of things, but we are very concerned about the suggestion to open the fresh program to other forms,” Nuxoll said.
The removal of “fresh” from the name and description of the school program shows efforts by the frozen food industry have made an impression on at least some members of the House Agricultural Committee, Nuxoll said. He has already begun talking with House members in pursuit of restoring the exclusively fresh definition of the program.
House members can expect to hear from staff at United Fresh also. Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh, said the organization supports the original intent and language of the 2002 legislation, which included fresh and dried produce.
“However, we strongly oppose any provision that opens the FFVP to all forms,” Guenther said July 6. “We will advocate that position strongly within the House Ag Committee, on the House floor, and in conference with the Senate, wherever needed.”
Tom O’Brien, Washington, D.C., representative for the Newark, Del.-based PMA, had similar comments to those of of Nuxoll and Guenther, saying that the bill has some good provisions for specialty crops. But, he also expressed concern about the removal of the fresh requirement from the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.
“It is really a remarkable bill and reflects the importance of specialty crops agriculture in the overall scene of American agriculture,” O’Brien said, adding that the House committee version would increase specialty crop block grant funding to $70 million from its current $55-million limit.