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Bill Would Boost Access to Fruit, Vegetables in Schools_
Some students at Union County Middle School in Liberty, Ind., had never seen a pear until the school joined a federal pilot program five years ago, that offers students fresh fruits and vegetables as snacks.
Currently in 14 states, the program could be expanded across the country under a $290 billion farm bill that sets the nation's agriculture policy for the next five years.
Supporters say the provision could encourage healthier eating habits among students at a time, when a third of American children are considered overweight or on the edge of becoming so.
When the snack program began in Union County, students were cynical about fruits and vegetables they had never tasted.
School cafeteria manager Betty Huddleston said, "It used to be we could hardly give it away, now they want to buy it.”
Students at her school are eating kiwi and jicama, and have as well tried exotic items like bok choy and red bananas.
The snack program is being advertised as part of a national campaign not in favor of child obesity, which health experts say poses serious medical consequences.
Schools are under increasing pressure to provide students with more nutritious alternatives in cafeterias and vending machines. Some have responded by putting in salad bars and limiting the sale of soft drinks and highly processed foods on school grounds.
The expansion of the snack program could have noteworthy benefits for students who typically do not eat the suggested amount of fruits and vegetables a day, health experts say.
Kids on a 1,800-calorie diet must eat about 2 1/2 cups of vegetables and 1 1/2 cups of fruit a day, according to U. S. dietary guidelines.
Lorelai DiSogra, a nutritionist at United Fresh Produce Association, which represents fruit and vegetable growers said, "Kids eat way less than half of the total fruit and vegetables they need to eat for good health. If you can make fresh fruits and vegetables available, kids are going to eat it.”
The industry group is lobbying heavily for the expansion of the snack program, which would rise annual funding from $6 million to as much as $225 million.
The increase would make it likely to expand the program beyond the states — Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Mississippi among them — that at the present participate.
Some medical professionals, however, say the program does not go far enough given the nation's longstanding support of rice, corn and wheat that they say adds to the obesity epidemic.
About three-quarters of the billions paid out every year in subsidies between 1995 and 2004 went for feed crops, direct aid supporting meat, and dairy production, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Less than 1% went for fruit and vegetable production.
Experts say the subsidies make calorie-rich foods like meats, grains and cheeses cheaper, fueling both production and consumption.
Hope Ferdowsian, a public health specialist with the committee said, "Those corporations are getting richer. All the while, the system is fueling the childhood and adult obesity epidemic. When there are surpluses, those foods are dumped into the school lunch program.”
A group of renegade senators this week introduced an option to the farm bill that would end the subsidies altogether.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N. J. said, "Our bill is intended to help every farmer in America, not just those who grow a select few crops."
The major farm bill reduces these payments but does not do away with them.
Thomas Wynn with the U. S. Rice Producers Association said, "We understand reforms are necessary but we don't want the reforms to come at the expense of the American producers."
As lawmakers fight over the particulars in the farm bill — the Senate wrapped up writing their version this week — produce growers are watching what comes about with the snack program and other provisions they say would help the industry and the average American's diet.
"We see this as a plus for all sides," said Jack King, a spokesperson for the California Farm Bureau, which represents farmers in a state that produces half the nation's fruits and vegetables. "It makes sense.”