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House Offers 'Fresh' Take on Produce Program for Poor Schools

When a U.S. House committee signed off on their version of the Farm Bill last month, they proposed an unusual twist to the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program that each year introduces thousands of low-income elementary school students to their first tastes of such items as kohlrabi, kiwi fruit, pomegranates, and peaches.

The committee wants the program to allow the snacks made with fresh produce served at these schools to include frozen, canned, and dried varieties of the same fruits and veggies.

The program explicitly excludes these items now, which is fine by Nathalie Means, the principal of Jefferson Elementary in St. Louis, one of several schools in the district that participates. Over the last four years, she's been able to introduce her students to fresh pineapples, red pears, celery, and plantains, among other produce items.

"We haven't discovered any item that they won't eat," Means said of her students, who are unlikely to encounter fresh versions of these items at home.

They just aren't in the budget for some families, which Gitta Grether-Sweeney, director of nutrition services for schools in Portland, learned firsthand. When she spent a week buying food using the same amount of money a family on food stamps would have to spend, Grether-Sweeney discovered quickly that fresh fruit and vegetables weren't in her budget.

"These kids need the fresh because of their economic status at home," she said. "Fresh fruit: underline, exclamation point, 'fresh'."

The 10-year-old Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which began with four states and the Zuni tribe in New Mexico, now operates in all 50 states and several U.S. territories. More than 4,000 elementary schools participate, and the program has an annual budget of $150 million—or nearly $1 billion each time the Farm Bill is renewed.

And that's what's driving the House proposal, first reported in The Washington Post, said Kristy Anderson, a government relations manager for the American Heart Association, in Washington. It's the same group who wanted a small amount of tomato paste on a slice of pizza to count as a serving of vegetables in school lunches, she said.

The American Heart Association supports federal dietary guidelines, which endorse consumption of all forms of fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy diet, Anderson said, but added, "we're also evidence-based. The evidence shows that the population this program is targeting does not get the recommended amount of fresh vegetables" and fruit.

An evaluation of the program last year found that students at schools participating in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Program ate an average of a quarter cup more fresh produce per day than students at schools without the program, and consumed almost no additional calories in the process.

"It is immensely popular not only with children but with school administrators," Anderson said. "Children are asking for these fruits and vegetables in their homes. These are kids who think pears come from a can."

But some members of the agribusiness community don't like being cut out of the school produce picture—even though many school lunches and breakfasts, far larger programs, include frozen, canned, and dried fruits and vegetables.

"This expansion will give schools year-round access to the widest possible variety of healthy and affordable fruits and vegetables in all forms, including frozen," said Kraig R. Naasz, chief executive officer of the American Frozen Food Institute in McLean, Va. He credited agriculture committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., in particular.

Whether there's an argument to be made about the nutritional equivalence of unprocessed produce and its frozen, dried, and canned counterparts may not matter: The proposal to expand the program may not get any traction in the Senate.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, created the program, and he has reiterated his desire to keep it pure.

"I'm regularly lobbied to add nuts to the program, to add dried fruits to the program, to add canned and frozen fruits and vegetables to the program," Harkin said in a speech last year to the United Fresh Produce Association. "Hell, I once had someone suggest that Congress add beef jerky to the program.

"Every day we spend mired in countless debates over the merits of pistachios or Craisins is a day that we do not spend fighting for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and arguing for why it should be expanded and protected," he continued. "Continuing the success of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program depends on being united and focused on protecting the program, rather than divided and protecting individual interests."

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