The Packer’s National Editor Tom Karst chatted on Nov. 30 with Steffanie Smith, chairwoman of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association and chief executive officer of River Point Farms LLC, Hermiston, Ore. Smith met first lady Michelle Obama Nov. 22 in Miami when Obama announced a new salad bar initiative for schools. Read the entire chat on the Fresh Talk blog.
3:04 p.m. Karst: Were you nervous when you recently met the first lady? What was that experience like?
3:04 p.m. Smith: I was nervous. I had all these plans of being very eloquent and very composed. She is incredibly engaging, incredibly gracious. She knew her material. She knew what she there to talk about. You just shake her hand and she says thank you for your support. It was just amazing. I was not eloquent but certainly thanked her for support and her engagement in bringing fruits and vegetables to children.
3:07 p.m. Karst: As we talk about the Obama administration, they have done a lot for fruits and vegetable with the White House garden, the Let’s Move campaign and their support for the salad bars. But Republicans have made a lot of inroads. Do you think United Fresh can be successful in its priorities with the shift in politics? What are challenges as you move forward into a new environment?
3:08 p.m. Smith: United’s presence in Washington, D.C,. has been for over 100 years, so really, Democrat or Republican, United is there to fight for the rights of industry day in and day out no matter what administration is in power. They will be very comfortable with this transition.
3:10 p.m. Karst: Right now it seems the characterization by some is that commercial growers are “industrial” agriculture while smaller growers are viewed a different way. Is there a way for the industry to get beyond that characterization?
3:11 p.m. Smith: We have unfortunately gotten lumped in with other big food companies, and fruits and vegetables in general have not told their story well, but there is still a person out there growing every day. There is still human touch in every crop we grow, and we haven’t told that story to consumers. We’re so focused on getting the product to market effectively and efficiently, somewhere along the way we stopped talking about the people that are doing that for consumers every day.
3:13 p.m. Karst: One more question about the food safety legislation and the Tester language exempting some smaller growers from food safety regulations. Was that an interesting discussion for the United Fresh board about the group’s position after you learned about that?
3:15 p.m. Smith: It was incredibly disappointing to have that amendment in there that allows exemptions for smaller farms. We were very disappointed in that. The dialogue internally with United and the board was pretty simple, that we need to fight that and try to make food safety a level playing field for all parties. But I also believe that our customers are going to demand that level and ultimately you will see the same expectations at even some of the smaller local arenas.