Child nutrition issues will be a big policy focus at the Sept. 28-30 United Fresh Produce Association Washington Conference.
"We are definitely at the peak discussion on child nutrition reauthorization," said Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of United Fresh. He said Sept. 23 that Congress won"t pass child nutrition reauthorization by the deadline of Sept. 30, and that makes the industry"s message very timely.
"While all the members are here this is exactly the right time to be carrying our message to Congress," he said.
If Congress and President Obama can"t agree on a bill, Stenzel said the current rules and regulations would remain in place. Stenzel said that any changes to the school lunch program should not alter the required half a cup of fruits and vegetables included in each reimbursable school meal.
About ten school nutrition directors will attend the Washington Conference, including three who will be on a panel discussion at the event, Stenzel said.
Reps. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and David Valadao, R-Calif., will address the event at the Sept. 29 general session luncheon, while Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and David Perdue, R-Ga., will speak at the event"s general session breakfast on Sept. 30.
More than 250 Congressional visits have been planned for the event, and Stenzel said school nutrition directors will take part in those visits to Capitol Hill and argue for support of the fruit and vegetable mandate in the school meal program.
About 500 total attendees are anticipated at the Washington Conference, he said.
On a related note, Stenzel said the lobbying efforts by canned and frozen fruit and vegetable processors to be included in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program should be turned back.
"Schools want fresh, schools like the fresh program," he said. "It has been hugely successful for 10 years why do they feel the need to do an end run to change it?"
Stenzel said that giving a child fresh broccoli or carrots during a school snack period will help them like vegetables.
"They will eat more frozen vegetables later, in fact, that is the majority of what"s in the lunch program," he said.
Stenel said processed fruits and vegetables as snacks don"t appeal to kids.
"What kind of canned fruit or vegetable snack do you intend to give a six year old at 10 a.m. in the morning?" he said. "If that is going to get them to love fruits and vegetables the rest of their life, I would be surprised,"
Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for United Fresh, agreed two important industry priorities are to keep the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program for fresh produce and keep the half-a-cup serving of fruits and vegetables a part of school meals.
"Those are huge issues for our industry, and this is the time."
Stenzel also said immigration remains a key issue for the industry, even though comprehensive immigration reform won"t happen before the 2016 election
"We are going to try to deliver the message that agriculture and our fruit and vegetable industry in particular needs a labor solution," he said. "We have got to get a new guest worker program and a new H-2A program."
The existing H-2A program has too many problems, he said, even though some growers have increased their use of it out of necessity.
Stenzel also said United Fresh will push the Senate to adopt drought legislation, already approved by the House, that will speed work on Western water projects.