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INDUSTRY VIEWPOINT: Public policy impact on produce -- how promotion and regulation affect industry

In the daily grind of commerce, it's easy to lose sight of the larger picture of how public policy can affect the ebb and flow of the produce business.

Long days of harvesting, packing and shipping, or working out the logistics of deliveries, don't often leave time for contemplating how larger issues affect the business.

Those of us involved in public policy must be mindful that the way in which we approach nutrition policy has a direct effect on the health of not only our residents but on our produce business as well.

The USDA's recently revised Food Pyramid -- actually a dozen new pyramids customized for people's individual circumstances -- places an emphasis at all levels on increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Clearly, the desire to eat healthier has taken hold in our society. Even if people sometimes get confused by talk about calories and carbs, most recognize that you're on the right track with fresh fruits and vegetables. Promotional campaigns such as the "Jersey Fresh" program help drive that point home.

We should keep in mind that we are taking that message not only to those who buy groceries today, but to those who will decide what to put on their families tables in the future. Take, for instance, our efforts to improve the nutritional value of the foods eaten by our school children.

Much of the debate nationwide on school nutrition policy has centered on offering healthier food options as a way of combating the rise in childhood obesity. While that is a goal worth pursuing, we don't believe it should be the sole purpose of improving what is consumed by young people in school.

Indeed, the model nutrition policy proposed in New Jersey takes a more universal view, the view that all students benefit from a healthier selection of nutritious fresh fruits and vegetables in their cafeterias. It is one of the most comprehensive policies ever dealing with child nutrition in schools. In a coordinated effort with other agencies, the initiative also encourages students to not only eat right, but to move more as well, stressing the importance of physical activity.

The policy will remove candy and items that list sugar as the first ingredient from being served any time during the school day. Snack foods can have no more than 8 grams of total fat and 2 grams of saturated fat per serving. Sodas will not be allowed to be sold or served to children any time during the school day.

But simply limiting high-sugar, high-fat foods in schools is no guarantee that students will turn to fresh fruits and vegetables in the alternative. That is why our efforts in schools also must include an educational component to teach students about the benefits of eating fresh produce. In New Jersey, we already have the successful Farms to School program, which distributed healthy offerings including fruits and vegetables such as 110,825 pounds of peaches, 71,008 pounds of blueberries and 220,000 pounds of romaine lettuce from New Jersey farms to schools in 2004.

Outside the school setting, the parents of those students have shown they want one thing more in addition to the nutrition and great taste of fruits and vegetables. They want convenience.

That was evident by the many products geared toward making produce more of a convenience item that were showcased at the recent Food Marketing Institute show in Chicago. From pre-cut celery and carrots to sliced apples in a plastic bag and pre-packaged salads, what might be termed "handy produce was widely showcased at the convention site. Processors like Ready Pac credit the demand by consumers for healthier foods with creating more vital markets among fast-food restaurants, many of which have added more salads and sliced fruit options to their menus.

Clearly, the makers of such convenience items benefit from the built-in marketing that comes from public policy initiatives like the Food Pyramid and efforts to increase the public's consumption of fresh produce. Another step will be helping to equip growers to produce fruits and vegetables in the specific ways the makers of these products need them delivered. That is another way in which public policymakers can strengthen the industry, by making available the technical and, in some cases, financial assistance needed for this transition.

But promoting the health benefits of fresh produce to consumers young and old is just one part of helping to set the tone for the industry. Another, especially in these times of uncertainty about world security, are food safety audits.

The New Jersey Department of Agriculture, like many throughout the nation, makes the program available to growers and shippers who must show buyers that they are growing, harvesting, packing and handling their products in safe and sanitary ways. Department staff are also certified to perform inspections under national Hazard Critical Control Point guidelines for those producers needing such inspections to market their products.

Ensuring the safety of fresh produce is as important to the consumer as guaranteeing its good taste and freshness. Premium grading programs and safety certification, therefore, are also important functions of those in charge of public policy.

All of these public policy approaches link together to help reposition the produce industry to meet the changing demands of the marketplace without forgetting about the more traditional elements that continue to exist. That approach helps growers large and small remain viable and keeps farms as a thriving part of our agricultural working landscape.

In the end, pursuing these public policies to strengthen growers, and thus the entire industry, enhances the quality of life for everyone through more nutritious foods and a more pristine environment.

(A full report on the New Jersey produce deal appears in the June 6 issue of The Produce News.)