Former senator blasts Bruce Poliquin’s push for fresh produce substitutes

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The retired U.S. senator from Iowa who created the national Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program is charging Maine Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin with trying to destroy it.

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, who served for three decades until his 2015 retirement, said, “This character from Maine” is so determined to let schools buy more frozen blueberries from 2nd District farms that he’s willing to undermine the entire rationale for a program that gives more than 4 million low-income schoolchildren fresh produce.

The program covers schools in every state — 165 in Maine — and typically provides snacks several times a week that vary from place to place but often include fresh grapes, apples, bananas, oranges, strawberries or carrots.

The new farm bill heading for a vote in the U.S. House includes Poliquin’s proposal to allow frozen, canned, pureed and dried fruits and vegetables to substitute for fresh produce, a switch backed by both the House Agriculture Committee and the California Farm Bureau.

Harkin said if the proposal wins passage, “then it won’t be a Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program,” except in name.

Poliquin said, though, that adding “better access and more nutritious choices” would help students eat healthier. He said inclusion of his proposal in the farm bill “is a huge win for our schoolchildren and the hardworking producers in Maine, such as our wild blueberry harvesters, who provide these nutritious foods.”

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Nancy McBrady, executive director of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission, said she thinks that everyone involved “is pulling in the same direction” with the intent of getting youngsters to eat healthfully and bolster nutrition in school.

She said wild blueberries that are “frozen at the height of freshness” are just as good as they are fresh — and because their season is so short, children won’t get much exposure to them without using frozen berries.
McBrady said that perhaps Poliquin’s proposal needs tweaking — she doesn’t want to see fruit packed in sugary water — but she said the goal of adding to the program’s options is a good one.

But Harkin, a 78-year-old Democrat, said there’s no need to open the door to produce that isn’t fresh.

“They can go and get these fresh blueberries now,” Harkin said. “What could be better than fresh blueberries? Nothing. Get those fresh blueberries out to kids.”

Harkin said the snack program he created to get fresh fruit and vegetables to children is one of his proudest achievements and he would hate to see it undermined by turning it into yet another excuse to shovel “processed food” at youngsters.

Brendan Conley, Poliquin’s spokesman, said Thursday the congressman’s proposal “is absolutely not about putting ‘junk food’ into school cafeterias. The proposal, which has the bipartisan support of 14 Democrats and Republicans, is about increasing the access and availability of nutritious foods to schools and students.”

Poliquin explained his support for a change in 2015, when he first began pushing for a revision. He said then that “by enabling schools to serve fruits and vegetables, in a variety of forms, we are not only increasing the market for Maine’s hard-working farmers to sell their products, but we are teaching children that nutritious foods come in many different sizes, shapes, colors and packages — from frozen blueberries, to canned peas, to fresh peaches and dried apricots.”

REPLACING ‘JUNK FOOD’ WITH FRESH

All of those products are already available for school lunch and breakfast programs, which make up the bulk of federal spending on food for students. But they run counter to the idea that motivated Harkin to create the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program more than 15 years ago.

Cecily Upton, a FoodCorps co-founder and its vice president of innovation and strategic partnerships, said programs like the one Harkin started offer a chance for students to sample something new and different.

Take something like fresh wax beans, she said. Without “a little bit of a nudge,” she said, “kids are not going to try them.”

But when they do, they discover a whole new, welcome taste, something they may eat for the rest of their lives, said Upton, who lives in Maine.

Stormie Hendrickson, food service director at Medomak Valley Middle School in Waldoboro, said an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables there has stirred student interest in new offerings, from kale macaroni and cheese to ground cherries.

“It has opened up a whole new world for kids,” said the school’s principal, Katherine Race. “It really seems to hit our most at-risk kids.”

Sam Sampson, a Waldoboro eighth-grader, said the fresh food program at his school got him so interested in agriculture that he plans to become a farmer.

He said he already created a garden at his house with peppers, squash, broccoli, beets and potatoes — all better alternatives to much of what he’s seen at school in past years.

A FRESH FOOD PILOT PROJECT

As a longtime member of the U.S. Senate’s Agriculture Committee, Harkin said he took an interest in the school lunch program and discovered most of it “was just junk food.”

Students “weren’t getting anything fresh,” Harkin said.

He set out to change that.

Harkin said he knew about scientific studies that found children’s taste buds are far more acute than adults typically possess. “They’re not battered like ours are from years of misuse,” he said.

So when they eat fresh fruits and vegetables, he said, they experience “a deeper flavor” than it has for their elders.

“They’ll eat fresh broccoli and carrots and cauliflower” in part because it simply tastes better to them, Harkin said.

“So I got this idea,” he said.

As the new chairman of the agriculture panel, he had the clout to introduce a pilot program to give fresh fruit and vegetable snacks to children midmorning or midafternoon when they sometimes “get the growlies” between meals.

All too often, their solution to feeling hungry at those moments was to “reach for a cookie or a vending machine candy bar.”

Far better, Harkin said, to offer them something fresh and wholesome, tied to an educational lesson. So he put some minimal funding in place to let 25 schools in four states serve as experiments.

Then he went out to see how the new initiative was working out. What he found, he said, is that it worked best in elementary schools — older children “kind of ignored it,” he said — and in places that didn’t have much money.

“The lower the income, the faster the fresh fruit and vegetables disappeared,” Harkin said.

He watched in one third-grade classroom as a teacher handed out the snacks and then used a big map to show children where the produce had been grown.

In another school, Harkin recalled seeing children eat fresh pears, which they loved.

“They had never seen one before,” he said. “They didn’t even know what it was.”
In a Des Moines, Iowa, school, Harkin said children gobbled up a big order of fresh strawberries so quickly they devoured them all before snack time even arrived.

FIGHTING TO KEEP OUT NUTS

When Republicans recaptured the Senate, pushing him out of the chairmanship, Harkin said he worried his experimental program might die. Instead, he found that GOP senators wanted it to grow.

By the time he returned to the committee’s leadership in 2008, Harkin decide to lock the program into the permanent budget and “funded it big time” so that now it costs $170 million a year.

It’s in every state, Harkin said, limited to elementary schools, with priority given to places that have many children on free and reduced lunches.

As the program grew, politicians began to feel pressure to expand coverage to include more than the fresh fruit and vegetables it aimed to promote.

Harkin said first “the dried fruit people wanted in” — including raisin sellers in California and cranberry producers in Michigan — but he managed to block them. Those pushing raisins, he said, “just about drove me nuts.”

“Then the nut people wanted in,” Harkin said. He said he was absolutely determined to block walnuts, almonds and pistachios in part because he knew if they got in the door, “the peanut people” would shoulder their way in as well.

“There was even an attempt to get canned fruit cocktail” included, Harkin said. “That’s nothing but sugar and syrup.”

Harkin said he never heard a single bad report about the program, which generally requires its produce to come from the United States, with the exception of bananas.

Pineapples from Hawaii proved so popular in the program, Harkin said, that Dole developed a pineapple on a stick to make it easier for children to eat chunks of the fruit, something it now sells in grocery stores. “They’re wonderful,” Harkin said.

Dole also developed a way to bag apple slices with just the right atmospheric mix to keep the pieces from turning brown, Harkin said, another popular innovation. Fresh apples, however, are still his favorite.

Harkin said that he will press his old colleagues to block Poliquin’s efforts to gut his program. He said he’ll tell them: “Don’t give in.”

“So far, we’ve protected the program,” he said, and with luck it can be expanded instead of degraded.

Harkin said children “know the difference between something fresh and something frozen.”

“I just love this program,” he said. “I love watching these kids eating this fresh fruit.”

The farm bill, approved this week on a party-line vote by the House Agriculture Committee, has a long legislative course to follow before it becomes part of the next federal budget, including securing the backing of U.S. senators who may prove less willing than House members to undercut a signature program of one of their former colleagues.

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A tomato plant growing last fall at the student-run garden at Medomak Valley Middle School in Waldoboro. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa

Sam Sampson, an eighth-grader at Medomak Valley Middle School in Waldoboro, hopes someday to be a farmer so he can grow his own fresh produce. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin 

Text of the bill submitted by U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin. Its terms are included in the farm bill approved recently by the House Agriculture Committee. It has yet to pass either the House or the Senate.

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