Some 200 officials of fruit and vegetable grower and processor companies devoted three days in Washington to urge members of Congress to support pending legislation which would increase federal government activity designed to increase consumption of produce. Their annual policy conference was cheered by a proposal by the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, to provide free fruits and vegetables to school children through US Department of Agriculture commodity purchasing programs.

Harkin told the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association contingent he would seek to include, in an omnibus farm bill to be developed in October, the authority for an experimental program making produce available without cost at schools participating in the National School Lunch Program.
Although no legislative proposal had been drafted, Harkin’s staff said the idea would be included in an outline of legislation the senator intended to publish in October for consideration by the committee.

Harkin said government should do more to encourage better nutrition and health by encouraging consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. He said the promotion should not be limited to the school feeding programs but be increased in special programs for women, infants and children; through the Food Stamp Program, food assistance for elderly consumers and through direct-selling “farmers’ markets.” He also suggested recipients of Food Stamps for low-income consumers be given a bonus for purchasing fruits and vegetables.

Harkin referred to his ongoing battle against vending machines in schools selling sugar snacks and drinks. Although some schools have vending machines to sell apples and other fruits, he suggested they did not compete well against processed, salted, high-fat and sugared alternatives. Instead, he said, “we ought to be providing fruits and vegetables free. Want a vegetable? Just pick it up… free apples, a free piece of fruit, a peach, grapes, whatever might be available during the seasonal purchasing for commodity programs.”

The association also urged Congress to include in the farm bill authority for an additional US$50m in matching funds to encourage private sector health promotion programmes to enhance produce consumption, increase the fruits and vegetables purchased by other federal feeding programs, and allocate at least 25% of a USDA environmental assistance grant program to farmers who produce fruits and vegetables.

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