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U.S. House Offers Not-So-Fresh Version of Fruit and Vegetable Program

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For at least the second time, a U.S. House of Representatives committee is offering a version of the massive farm bill that would dramatically change a snack program that is intended to develop a taste for fresh produce in children from low-income families.

In the version of the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act marked up by the House Agriculture Committee this week, the word "fresh" is stricken from language about the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.

The program, created 11 years ago, provides snack-sized servings of fresh fruits and vegetables to children in high-poverty schools, children who are the least likely to be exposed to these items outside of school. (Fresh produce can cost far more than dried, canned, or frozen versions, and more than fried, salty, and sugary snacks.) The theory is that, by introducing the items to children, they will develop a taste for them, making them lifelong consumers of items like kale, carrots, and cantaloupe.

One recent study showed that kids at schools with the program actually do eat more fruits and vegetables.

"This is targeted at children most likely not to have access to fresh items," said Kristy Anderson, the government relations manager for the American Heart Association. Her organization supports serving children other forms of fruits and vegetables—canned, frozen, and dried—at school meals, but it wants to see the integrity of this program remain intact.

"This could open doors to a whole cadre of things that aren't even fruits and vegetables," Anderson told me.

She said it would only take the creativity of food engineers to change the program completely. Sugary fruit snacks, high-calorie trail mix, and even fruit-based candy could end up in the program if it's changed. "I'm sure somebody out there could figure that out."

Why change the program? It's worth about $150 million per year—a lot of money over the five-year life span of the farm bill—and could open up a new market for frozen, canned, and dried fruit and vegetable companies, and possibly others in the food industry.

I talked to some schools about the possibility of this change when it came up last year, and they didn't like it.

And it is likely not to go anywhere, considering the strong support to leave it as is in the Senate, where a committee also marked up the farm bill this week and the full chamber is expected to discuss it next week.

The House version of the bill, by the way, would also cut about $2.5 billion a year from the food stamps program. That could have a ripple effect on children if it means fewer people are eligible for the aid. More and more, schoolchildren are automatically signed up for free meals at schools because their families already receive food stamps.

Follow Rules for Engagement on Twitter @Rulz4Engagement and Education Week Staff Writer Nirvi Shah on Twitter @NirviShah.

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