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United to fight frozen, dried fruit in school snack program

by Joan Murphy | July 22, 2010
WASHINGTON — The United Fresh Produce Association is feeling the heat for opposing an amendment added to a childhood nutrition bill July 15 that would allow the federal school snack program to hand out dried and frozen fruit.

United Fresh supports the Improving Nutrition for America's Children Act of 2010 (H.R. 5504), which passed the House of Representatives Education & Labor Committee by a vote of 32 to 13.

The legislation would increase the reimbursement rate for lunch by six cents to help schools meet nutrition requirements, loosen purchasing requirements for school salad bars, enhance funding for nutrition education in schools, help schools set up local farm-to-school networks, extend food-safety requirements to all places food is stored, and increase access to healthy breakfast meals.

But at the markup, an amendment by Reps. David Wu (D-OR) and Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-WA) is causing United Fresh, already working during a July heat wave in the nation’s capital, to feel the heat. At issue is an amendment approved by the committee that included frozen fruit in the program. Other language in the bill would extend purchases to dried products.

The American Frozen Food Institute immediately applauded the bill changes. "At no additional cost to the taxpayer, the Wu-Rodgers amendment expands the snack program by enabling school dietitians to provide healthy, affordable frozen fruit," Kraig Naasz, president and chief executive officer of the institute, said in a July 15 press release. “Thanks to Reps. Wu and Rodgers, schools can ease the pressure on strained budgets and ensure children have year-round access to fruits that provide the nutrition growing bodies need.”

But Lorelei DiSogra, United’s vice president of nutrition and health, is not pleased. United Fresh is “very disappointed with the inclusion of frozen and dried fruit” and plans to “improve” the legislation as it moves through Congress, Ms. DiSogra said in a July 15 statement to members. Since then, certain members of the industry have been upset with United Fresh’s stance.

“We’re feeling the heat,” she told The Produce News. “We are not in favor of changes to the fresh fruit and vegetable snack program,” she said. “If they destroy the program, the whole fresh produce industry should be angry.”

Ms. DiSogra predicted that schools will buy fewer fresh commodities if the program is expanded to canned and dried fruits. “Once you open the door, it’s going to be difficult to close.” Also, she credited fresh fruits and vegetables with changing children’s attitudes about produce and turning them into lifelong consumers of healthy foods.

Still, it is unclear whether Congress can reauthorize the child nutrition programs before they expire on Sept. 30. The Senate, which is weighed down by a crowded legislative calendar before the elections, has yet to act on a companion $4 billion bill.

Ms. DiSogra said that she plans to reach out to health groups to weigh in on the importance of maintaining fresh produce and vowed, “over my dead body,” to stop the language from being attached to the Senate bill.