Fresh snack changes opposed
JOHN BUCHANANA farm bill approved July 12 by the House Committee on Agriculture includes a provision that has prompted strong opposition from both of its Florida members, as well as the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance.
Published: July 25, 2012
Published: July 25, 2012
The House bill extends the fresh fruit and vegetable snack program to canned and frozen products.
"Since its inception in 2002, the program has exclusively been for fresh fruits and vegetables," said Mike Stuart, executive director of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association and co-chairman of SCFBA. "The premise of the program is that it's intended to teach schoolchildren the benefits of a diverse diet of fresh fruits and vegetables. So the feeling is that expanding it to all forms of fruits and vegetables would limit their exposure to fresh produce."
That is a key issue in Florida, where the state's agriculture department is spearheading an aggressive push to get more fresh fruits and vegetables into schools.
"We are communicating our concerns about that provision to Washington," Stuart said.
U.S. Reps. Steve Southerland II and Tom Rooney, Florida's members of the Agriculture Committee and both Republicans, agree with the opposition to the proposed change.
"Rep. Southerland believes that the provision extending the snack program to canned and frozen fruits and vegetables undermines both the financial well being of Florida's growers and ongoing efforts to promote healthy eating habits for our kids," said spokesman Matt McCullough. "He remains committed to working with his House colleagues to ensure that the original mission of the program promoting fresh fruits and vegetables is preserved as the bill works its way through Congress."
A spokesman for Rooney agreed. "He opposes the change and supports the efforts of Florida growers to keep fresh fruits and vegetables in the fresh snack program," Michael Mahaffey said.
Matt Joyner, director of federal affairs at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, explained the rationale for the opposition. "Florida is primarily a fresh fruit and vegetable state," he said. "That's our bailiwick. We are able to grow and provide fresh fruits and vegetables almost year-round and we also believe that in that form, they are the healthiest nutritionally. So we feel that extending the program to canned and frozen products would negatively impact Florida. As a result, we've definitely expressed our displeasure in seeing that provision in the House bill."
However, he acknowledged, he is not confident it can be overturned.
Meanwhile, Rooney praised some other provisions in the House bill as particularly beneficial to Florida farmers.
"One replaces outdated, ineffective subsidy programs with a new, voluntary risk management safety net for dairy producers in Okeechobee and across the state of Florida," he said. "Another increases the Specialty Crop Block Program, which has successfully enhanced the competitiveness of specialty crops such as citrus, strawberries and tomatoes through grants to states to support research, product quality enhancement, food safety and other projects. A third one combats plant pests and diseases like citrus greening by streamlining programs and increasing funding for early detection and response to plant pest or disease, which saves taxpayer dollars while minimizing potential damages."
Joyner agreed that extension of the specialty crop block grant program is especially important to Florida growers, based on its unique flexibility.
"It's one of the few programs where the federal government allocates a certain amount per state and allows the state to determine how to best meet the needs of its producers," he said. "That flexibility has been very beneficial for us."
The House bill must now be brought to the floor for a vote and then reconciled in conference with a bill passed by the full Senate last month.
The most striking difference between the Senate and House bills, aside from the fruit and vegetable snack provision, is the depth of total funding cuts to farm and nutrition programs.
The Senate bill cuts $23 billion from existing budgets. The House bill cuts $35 billion.
A large majority of the cuts are in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, better known as food stamps, with the House bill cutting $12 billion more than the $4 billion in the Senate bill that leaves the vast bulk of funding for farm programs intact.
"Now, the House leadership needs to bring the farm bill to the floor for a vote," committee Chairman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma and ranking member Collin Peterson of Minnesota said in a recent joint statement.
Whether that will happen in a presidential election year is an open question.
The current farm bill expires on Sept. 30, and there only 13 legislative days before the August recess.
There are no plans to move the House bill to a floor vote, said Tamara Hinton, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Committee.
Without congressional passage of a consolidated bill, the most likely outcome in an election year is an extension of the existing 2008 bill.
But that could have some consequences, such as defunding of some programs vital to Florida, Joyner said.
Both Southerland and Rooney are aggressively pushing for a House bill to be passed by the entire chamber as soon as possible.
"Both of them have been very helpful in moving our priorities forward," Stuart said. "They're both doing a great job."