Harkin defends fresh, hurts some feelings

10/07/2011 12:52:00 PM
Amelia Freidline

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As superbly planned as any event in the produce industry, the United Fresh Produce Association’s Washington Public Policy Conference was most memorable for the unexpected moments.
I experienced some of those moments. 
Every one of the 500-plus participants can recall a suprising scene from the event, typically unfolding unscripted in a Congressional office or in a question-and-answer session following a presentation on a topic such as immigration or produce safety.
One of those moments came the morning of Oct. 4, when Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and architect of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, entertained questions after his remarks at the breakfast session that day.
Of course, Harkin reflected on the success of the program over the past decade — which has grown from a $6 million pilot program in the 2002 farm bill to a program with a budget of $150 million providing fresh produce snacks to millions of children in low income school districts nationwide.
“I asked you all (10 years ago) to imagine what would happen if we could give every child in America free fresh fruits and vegetables every day,” he said. 
That ultimate goal has not yet been reached, but Harkin said he was proud to lead a remarkable change in federal agricultural policy in finally recognizing that consuming more fruits and vegetables and other specialty crops was important to human health and the economy of the U.S.
Harkin said he saw the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack program at the time as a way to better nutrition and to derail the consumption of junk food at schools.
“Sometimes, the hardest thing to find in this town is a willing partner and a little bit of imagination,” he said, praising the work of United Fresh to make the dream a reality.
With tight federal budgets, Harkin said supporters of the program can’t sit back and relax.
“We have to make the case for the program,” he said.
What’s more, Harkin said that the focus and uniqueness of the program should be preserved. Perhaps even more than any association or fruit and vegetable group, Harkin seems intent on keeping fresh fruits and vegetables the main — and only — attraction.
“When you have a successful program, other people try to piggyback on it,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times I have been lobbied to add dried fruits to the program, canned and frozen fruits to the program, frozen vegetables to the program,” he said. 
“Heck, one guy suggested we could add beef jerky to the program.”
Harkin, who said he added dried fruits to win initial approval for the pilot, told the WPPC he doesn’t have anything against those foods. 
He asserted, though, that the uniqueness and effectiveness of the program focusing on fresh produce should be preserved.
“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.
tkarst@thepacker.com
What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.

Tom Karst, National EditorWASHINGTON, D.C. — As superbly planned as any event in the produce industry, the United Fresh Produce Association’s Washington Public Policy Conference was most memorable for the unexpected moments.

I experienced some of those moments. 

Every one of the 500-plus participants can recall a suprising scene from the event, typically unfolding unscripted in a Congressional office or in a question-and-answer session following a presentation on a topic such as immigration or produce safety.

One of those moments came the morning of Oct. 4, when Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and architect of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, entertained questions after his remarks at the breakfast session that day.

Of course, Harkin reflected on the success of the program over the past decade — which has grown from a $6 million pilot program in the 2002 farm bill to a program with a budget of $150 million providing fresh produce snacks to millions of children in low income school districts nationwide.

“I asked you all (10 years ago) to imagine what would happen if we could give every child in America free fresh fruits and vegetables every day,” he said. 

That ultimate goal has not yet been reached, but Harkin said he was proud to lead a remarkable change in federal agricultural policy in finally recognizing that consuming more fruits and vegetables and other specialty crops was important to human health and the economy of the U.S.

Harkin said he saw the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack program at the time as a way to better nutrition and to derail the consumption of junk food at schools.

“Sometimes, the hardest thing to find in this town is a willing partner and a little bit of imagination,” he said, praising the work of United Fresh to make the dream a reality.

With tight federal budgets, Harkin said supporters of the program can’t sit back and relax.

“We have to make the case for the program,” he said.

What’s more, Harkin said that the focus and uniqueness of the program should be preserved.

Perhaps even more than any association or fruit and vegetable group, Harkin seems intent on keeping fresh fruits and vegetables the main — and only — attraction.

“When you have a successful program, other people try to piggyback on it,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times I have been lobbied to add dried fruits to the program, canned and frozen fruits to the program, frozen vegetables to the program,” he said. 

“Heck, one guy suggested we could add beef jerky to the program.”

Harkin, who said he added dried fruits to win initial approval for the pilot, told the WPPC he doesn’t have anything against those foods. 

He asserted, though, that the uniqueness and effectiveness of the program focusing on fresh produce should be preserved.

“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.

tkarst@thepacker.com

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.



Comments (3) Leave a comment 

Name
e-Mail (required)
Location

Comment:

characters left

Dan Haley    
washingtondc  |  October, 11, 2011 at 08:58 AM

Tom, I read your opinion piece and certainly understand the policy of fresh only. What you probably are unaware of is the history of dried fruit in the program and the process used to remove it. First 97 per cent of dried fruit comes from California. It was the chairman of the House committee George Miller from California that initially put dried fruit into the program. There are good policy reasons for this. Schools in the inner city that don't gave the infrastructure to handle fresh would be effectively kept out of the program. More important however is the procedural method used to remove dried fruit. Dried fruit was dropped in a conference committee where no member of the California congressional delegation had notice of the change. The fact is that the version of the program that came out of Mr. Harkin's committee included dried fruit. The version that Mr. Harkin took to the floor of the senate included dried fruit. It is a fact that if the dried fruit industry had notice that Mr. Harkin planned to drop dried fruit in conference we would have notified our California senators and it wouldn't have happened. That is why this issue is unique and why senators Feinstein Boxer and represntative Miller support the restoration.

Dan Haley    
washingtondc  |  October, 11, 2011 at 03:57 PM

Tom, I read your opinion piece and certainly understand the policy of fresh only. What you probably are unaware of is the history of dried fruit in the program and the process used to remove it. First 97 per cent of dried fruit comes from California. It was the chairman of the House committee George Miller from California that initially put dried fruit into the program. There are good policy reasons for this. Schools in the inner city that don't gave the infrastructure to handle fresh would be effectively kept out of the program. More important however is the procedural method used to remove dried fruit. Dried fruit was dropped in a conference committee where no member of the California congressional delegation had notice of the change. The fact is that the version of the program that came out of Mr. Harkin's committee included dried fruit. The version that Mr. Harkin took to the floor of the senate included dried fruit. It is a fact that if the dried fruit industry had notice that Mr. Harkin planned to drop dried fruit in conference we would have notified our California senators and it wouldn't have happened. That is why this issue is unique and why senators Feinstein Boxer and represntative Miller support the restoration.

Kraig Naasz    
McLean, VA  |  October, 13, 2011 at 04:01 PM

Tom, I read with interest your recent editorial regarding the Fruit & Vegetable Snack Program. As a longtime advocate for the fruit and vegetable industry and past president and CEO of the U.S. Apple Association, I have more than a little familiarity with the issues that both unite and, occasionally, divide various sectors of the produce industry. As an ardent supporter and board member of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, I have also long aided the industry’s efforts to encourage increased consumption of fruits and vegetables in all their forms, including fresh, frozen, canned, dried and 100 percent juice. If the primary purpose of the Snack Program is to introduce school children to fruits and vegetables, than doesn’t it make sense to expose them to our products in all forms while educating them about the benefits of incorporating more servings into their daily diets for better health? For many school districts and the families of children their serve, fresh fruits and vegetables are not always accessible due to seasonality and cost. In those instances, we believe making such items as frozen fruit cups available to students serves the purpose of the program. Further, and with all due respect to those who wish to limit participation, we believe initiatives like the Snack Program would benefit from the addition of more stakeholders and advocates—especially in today’s fiscal environment. As we’ve offered to our friends representing fresh and dried fruits, wouldn’t we be better off joining forces in advance of the 2012 Farm Bill to expand both the funding and reach of this program? We certainly think so and would be happy to offer the frozen fruit and vegetable industry’s unbridled support. Kraig R. Naasz President & CEO American Frozen Food Institute

Join the conversation - sign up for FREE today!
FeedWind
Feedback Form
Leads to Insight