During my five-decade career, I have witnessed the fresh fruit and vegetable industry struggle to get its day in the sun with the American consumer.
Today is that day!
That’s why when United Fresh called asking if I would testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry on the importance of school nutrition, I didn’t hesitate.
Nutrition in our schools and the fight against childhood obesity is our industry’s best opportunity, and it has become a professional passion for me.
“There are produce suppliers all over the country who are just as passionate and committed to supporting schools as I am,” I told the Senate agriculture committee.
“We all want to provide schools with great quality fresh produce and help students increase their consumption.”
Any time that any of us in the produce industry has the opportunity to make our voice heard, especially about promoting consumption among our nation’s children, we should take advantage of it.
My passion for nutrition started with my introduction to the school lunch program, as a high school graduate in 1969 working in a school district central kitchen and delivering food to inner city elementary schools.
However, during the intervening 30-plus years of feeding our children, I feel that, as a nation, we have been missing the mark.
We have been feeding our school children high-fat, high-carbohydrate and low-nutrient per calorie meals, which has contributed to the childhood obesity epidemic.
Here are just a few alarming statistics:
- One in six children in America is hungry;
- Nearly 32% of America’s children are obese (according to Children’s Defense Fund); and
- “… an estimated 75% of all young Americans between the ages of 17-24 cannot qualify for military service,” according to Mission: Readiness, the organization of retired military leaders who are engaged in child nutrition.
They say that among the key barriers to enlistment is that these young people are “too overweight to handle the physical tasks that military service demands.”
The passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was a watershed event for the campaign against obesity. Its passage ushered in sweeping advances for school nutrition policies, which United Fresh strongly supported.
I am in awe of the heroic effort required by the coalition of nutrition advocates, United Fresh and other leaders who worked to pass this legislation.
These policy victories can help us grow as an industry.
Starting about 15 years ago, my company had been fortunate enough to garner business with several local school districts. We had to invest time and effort to learn how to best work with our school customers, but that investment is paying off.
Our school business has grown significantly. We participate in all of the various feeding programs and now supply directly and through subcontractors to 52 school districts in three states.
I am here to tell all in the fresh fruit and vegetable industry that providing product to schools can be good for your business.
If you distribute product to schools, your business can grow.
If you develop new products for schools, it can grow even more. As an added benefit, the kids learn to love the fresh produce and ask for it at home, in effect building demand at retail.
Our challenge is to help the school districts we service implement the new 2010 standards successfully.
At the recent School Nutrition Association Annual Conference in Boston, I joined with others from the produce industry to educate hundreds of school nutrition directors about ways to best manage their fresh produce programs: menu planning, procurement, handling — everything they need to know to succeed in serving lots more fruits and vegetable to their kids.
We did it as part United’s first-ever Fresh Produce Pavilion at the SNA. I think it was a huge success and I plan to be at the SNA show next year to build on this progress.
Our lawmakers in Washington need to hear how we’re making these landmark nutrition standards work for kids and schools — don’t let them give some schools a waiver for meeting the standards.
That’s why I spoke to the Senate agriculture committee, and it’s also why you need to join me and hundreds of other dedicated produce industry leaders at the United Fresh Washington Conference, Sept. 8-10.
Let’s make sure Congress knows how much we support the new school nutrition standards. Every single person’s voice counts.
We shouldn’t let a single school back away from meeting these critically important nutrition standards. The stakes are too important.
Instead, we need to work with schools to help them succeed, putting our industry’s know-how and resources to work for this common goal.
After all, we are just talking about a half a cup per meal.
Phil Muir is president of Muir Copper Canyon Farms, Salt Lake City.
What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.