“Every day we spend in countless debates about pistachios or Craisins is a day we don’t spend fighting for why the fresh fruit and vegetable program should be expanded and protected,” he said.
“Especially now, this is not the time for such distractions and disputes.”
Harkin’s speech, which also addressed the dark themes of budget cutting and a positive reference to passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, was warmly received.
The lawmaker’s sainted status in the industry didn’t deter Vaughn Koligian, director of corporate sustainability for Kingsburg-based Sun-Maid Growers of California, from pressing Harkin on the idea of returning dried fruit to the snack program.
That exchange was the memorable moment from Harkin’s speech for me.
Koligian told Harkin that “perhaps he wasn’t aware” that the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance unanimously voted to recommend that the USDA restore dried fruit to the program. Dried fruits were originally part of the pilot program but were later removed from eligibility.
Harkin said it would be impossible to limit the list of commodities that could be added to the program. Almonds, pecans and pistachios would be followed by peanuts and other ill-fitting commodities.
“How about soybeans too?” Harkin said, also adding that nutritionists object to dried fruits’ high concentration of sugar.
Harkin said it would soon be one commodity piled on top of another and soon it would no longer be the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, but rather a hodgepodge of competing interests.
“The basic thrust of this program was to provide free fresh fruits and vegetables to kids,” he said.
Nothing against dried fruit and nuts, Harkin said, but once the door is open there is no closing it.
The fresh produce industry should be thankful that Harkin has been able to nurture and grow the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program over the past decade.
Notwithstanding the unanimous vote of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, there should be no reservation among fresh produce marketers in backing Harkin’s vision for the program’s uniqueness and mission going forward.
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