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 saw some of those moments. Everyone of 500 plus participants can recall a surprising scene from the event, typically unfolding unscripted in a Congressional office or in a question and answer session following a presentation on a topic like immigration or produce safety.
One of those rare 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 (ten 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.”