Processors elbowing in on the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program

02/07/2014 10:41:00 AM
Tom Karst

Tom KarstIn a news release about the “alphabet soup of wins and losses for nutrition” in the farm bill, American Heart Association chief executive officer Nancy Brown issued a statement about the various ups and downs of the legislation.

Brown gave a thumbs up to multiple provisions in the bill that promote healthy food consumption. But the American Health Association executive was not at all pleased with cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which she said will make it hard for some seniors and low income families with children to afford a healthy diet.

And then, somewhat surprisingly to me, she took direct aim at a tweak to the well-loved Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program.

Brown wrote:

“We are also troubled that the legislation creates a pilot within the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program that expands eligibility beyond fresh produce to canned, frozen and dried options. While the association believes that all whole fruits and vegetables regardless of their form are important for kids to eat, the current program plays a unique role by providing the poorest children in our country with much-needed exposure to fresh fruits and vegetables. We will closely monitor this pilot effort to ensure that it does not undermine the impact and integrity of this nutrition education program.”

Ms. Brown, I couldn’t agree with you more. Indeed, why gum up the machinery of the well-tuned Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program? Lobbyists for marketers of canned, frozen and dried fruits and vegetables are no doubt rejoicing with the approval of this stealthy pilot program.

Importantly, the farm bill (Section 4214 if you are scoring at home) maintains the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program authorization and baseline funding at $150 million per year. The new pilot program will be a one-year evaluation (established by USDA) for schools in at least five states that may offer canned, frozen, and dried, along with fresh fruits and vegetables as part of the program. Lawmakers set aside a sum of $5 million to evaluate the success of the pilot and deliver a report to Congress by Jan. 1 of 2015.

That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? A tiny little pilot program to appease processors and their lobbyists who have been hell-bent to elbow into the program. Except processors don’t see it as a token measure.

One dispiriting news release from the American Frozen Food Institute, McLean, VA., was headlined “AFFI Lauds Final Passage of Farm Bill Adding Frozen Fruits and Vegetables into Popular School Snack Program,” frozen industry leaders sounded as if long-suffering children were at last rewarded with the prospect of consuming nutritionally superior frozen fruits and vegetables.

What’s more, the idea by the frozen food folks is that this pilot will “enable Congress to consider the benefits of permanently expanding the USDA program to include all forms of fruits and vegetables – including frozen – during next year’s reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.”

In other words, scoot over. We want our share.

It is too bad that the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program can’t remain unique. After all, USDA commodity purchases for school meals and other feeding programs are heavily skewed toward processed forms of fruits and vegetables. In fiscal year 2013, the USDA purchased only $3.7 million in fresh apples out of total apple product purchases of more than $61 million. Applesauce purchases were a whopping $34 million; even frozen apple slices scored more than $6 million.

As the AHA’s Brown said, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program gives our country’s poorest children much-needed exposure to fresh fruits and vegetables. A fresh pear is a much different experience than a canned pear. A freshly peeled clementine evokes a different set of senses that tinned mandarin slices.

At the Washington Public Policy Conference in October 2011, Sen. Tom Harkin, author of the 2002 pilot Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, warned about the prospect of trying to expand the program to all forms.

“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.”

“How about soybeans too?” Harkin said, Harkin prophetically predicted the program 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,” Harkin said then.

Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy at the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., told me recently that United Fresh wants to make sure that the pilot’s evaluation ordered by lawmakers accurately reflects the impressions and best interests of kids.

“Ultimately this program benefits kids and it has got to be about the kids,” he said. “It can’t be about industry, it is there to benefit the kids.”

The expectation of processors - frozen, canned, dried and perhaps beef jerky, nuts and soybeans, too - is that the door to the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program is cracked open, and they will try to gradually increase their share of the $150 million per year spend. If they have 3% of the dollars in 2015, they will want 12% by 2020. We don’t fault the processing industry from wanting a piece of the pie. Just don’t say it is for “the kids.”



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