I had the chance to chat on Nov. 30 with Steffanie Smith, current chairwoman of the Washington, D.C.-based group and chief executive officer of River Point Farms LLC, Hermiston, Ore.
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. So certainly I think about my belief in this program, I feel so strongly that this is a non-partisan issue. Everyone should be advocating putting fruits and vegetables in the hands of our children. It is a healthy message, it drives benefits to our communities and it helps drive our business by increasing consumption. It is a win-win-win all around.
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 for 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. As far as child nutrition goes, again, it is certainly our hope to make this a non-partisan issue. Endorsing the nutritional guidelines in our school lunch programs shouldn’t be a political topic. I’m positive that we will continue that good message and that good work.
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 consumer every day. I truly believe that we all win, whether fruits and vegetables are locally grown, organically grown or grown on large farms around the country. A rising tide raises all boats. We need to endorse all types of growers and shippers that bring fruits and vegetables to market. Ultimately you can’t have locally grown strawberries in North Dakota in December. We have to have commercial agriculture and the companies and families that have committed for generations to grow these crops and deliver them to market should be held up in the highest esteem. They shouldn’t be vilified for being so large. I had the opportunity to speak to a group of food editors recently and they don’t understand that it is often a marketing group that represents 10, 20 or hundreds of growers.
We just have to get better at telling our story.
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 that they are going to demand that level and ultimately you will see the same expectations at even some of the smaller local arenas. People are going to want to understand how it was grown and if it is safe. I think the dialogue will continue and ultimately our customers will tell us what those expectations are. They are not going to risk their brand or their label of their stores by buying from someone who can’t meet minimum food safety standards. Time will tell.