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.”
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 should be preserved as is.
“Every day we spend in countess 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 by the crowed.
The lawmaker’s sainted status in the industry didn’t deter Vaughn Koligian, director of corporate sustainability for Kingsburg, Calif.-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.
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, allowing that dried fruits were allowed in the program initially to win approval for the pilot, 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.
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, it would be a hodge podge 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.