In a bid to “give our children greater access to healthy fruits and vegetables,” U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin aims to gut the government’s successful Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program by adding produce that’s frozen, canned, pureed or dried.

The proposal would allow almost any form of fruits and vegetables to count under the initiative created specifically to put fresh produce into the hands of children who attend schools in low-income areas in every state.

Poliquin’s proposal would open the door to more processed food that students don’t really need, said Curt Ellis, the co-founder of FoodCorps, a nonprofit focused on helping students eat healthier.

The fresh fruit and vegetable program is just a tiny sliver of the overall school lunch program — less than $200 million of the more than $19 billion the federal government spends feeding students annually.

Schools in the 15-year-old government program get between $50 and $75 per student each year to buy fresh fruits and vegetables to serve as snacks during the day outside of the normal breakfast and lunch programs.

What’s important about it is that it provides students with a chance to experience the taste, crunch and experience of eating something fresh, said Matt Russell, resilient agriculture coordinator at Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center in Iowa.


As an educational endeavor, he said, it can “help young people embrace a different future in how they eat.”

It’s not that frozen or processed fruits and vegetables aren’t also valuable, Russell said, but fresh produce “is a much more powerful pedagogical tool than opening a jar of applesauce.”

To get a flavor of what the program does, consider what Park Avenue Elementary School in Auburn — one of about 200 eligible schools in Maine — offered students in April 2015.

That month, it spent $1,700 from the program to provide children with fresh grapes, apples, bananas, oranges, strawberries and carrots.

For Poliquin, a Republican from Maine’s rural 2nd District, the push to make changes appears to be mostly a bid to get the government to buy more of the state’s wild blueberries.

Nancy McBrady, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, said the berries “are an example of an extremely healthy and delicious fruit that is frozen at peak ripeness that locks in its nutritional benefits and can be used all year round.”


“The more options schools — and our children — have for consuming healthy and affordable fruits and vegetables, the better,” she said.

Ellis said there’s some value to letting schools support local agriculture by serving up minimally processed produce such as frozen blueberries in the middle of the winter. That could be “a great thing,” Ellis said.

But, he said, it’s far more likely that students would wind up eating canned fruit and dried raisins instead, the sorts of stuff they don’t really need.

“It’s a slippery slope from minimally processed fruits to pizza sauce being counted as a vegetable,” Ellis said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture ran a pilot program two years ago that let some schools, including a few in Maine, add canned, frozen and dried produce to what they served children as snacks.

The results were discouraging for advocates of change.


Canned and dried fruit were nearly the only alternatives actually offered to children, the study found, and the end result was that students ate about one-fifth less than they did when given only fresh fruit and vegetables.

“We don’t want well-nourished trash cans,” Ellis said. “We want well-nourished kids.”

As with most things in Congress, plenty of politicians are seeing an opportunity to promote their districts’ fruits and vegetables if the measure pushed by Poliquin moves forward. So far, his bill has eight cosponsors, half of them Democrats.

Political squabbles about what to include in school lunches are a regular feature of the overall food program, from the seemingly absurd fight about whether ketchup should count as a vegetable from the 1980s to Sen. Susan Collins’ winning campaign a half dozen years ago to make sure that Maine’s potatoes weren’t shoved off the meal menu.

But there is one big distinction between the larger battles and the one in which Poliquin is engaged. In the rest of the school nutrition world, there’s lots of frozen, canned, dried and pureed produce.

There’s just one small program that demands freshness.


In the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, the brainchild of former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, the fruits and vegetables handed over to students in more than 7,000 impoverished schools in every state must be fresh.

Harkin focused on low-income students because research showed they have less exposure to fresh fruit and vegetables and often well short of eating the amounts recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The American Heart Association called it “an initiative which helps low-income children have access to these foods, helps them learn about healthy habits and helps them make informed nutrition choices.”

Small as the program is, food producers of all sorts want to be included, partly to sell more of their products immediately and partly to help create lifelong consumers for their offerings.

Ellis said it can be a complicated issue that requires some nuance.

Since less than 10 percent of America’s schoolchildren eat the recommended allowance of fruits and vegetables each day, he said, it’s critical to get them choosing better to avoid many of the diet-based health hazards they may face in the future if they don’t develop improved eating habits.


“We need to solve the problem of getting kids to eat their vegetables,” he said.

At a 2011 conference, Harkin addressed the hardships of keeping the program he created true to its mission.

“When you have a successful program, other people try to piggyback on it. I can’t tell you how many times I have been lobbied to add dried fruits to the program, canned and frozen fruits to the program, frozen vegetables to the program,” Harkin said, according to an account in The Packer.

“Heck, one guy suggested we could add beef jerky to the program,” said Harkin, who has since retired and could not be reached for comment.

That emphasis on freshness would, of course, change if the Maine congressman’s quest succeeds.

When Poliquin introduced a similar bill two years ago, he said he’s committed to having children eat well.


“When I was raising my son,” he said, “nothing mattered more to me than his health and well-being, and I was very mindful of the meals we ate and the food we purchased.”

“I believe it’s very important for our kids to have the opportunity to eat delicious fruits and vegetables, such as Maine blueberries and strawberries, all school year round,” he said.

“By enabling schools to serve fruits and vegetables, in a variety of forms, we are not only increasing the market for Maine’s hardworking 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,” Poliquin said.

Ellis said that variety is important, but so is steering clear of added sugar and heavily processed products, the sorts of items that still dominate most school meals and supermarket shelves.

The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program is one of many small initiatives in the government to try to steer consumers toward better quality food than they normally get.

As Russell, who has a small farm outside Des Moines, the point of it is to raise a healthier generation with a keener appreciation of what they choose to put on their plates.

“We’re trying to change the way people eat,” said Russell.

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