Pushing for federal apple buys
USApple is continually exploring ways to effectively and efficiently move apple supplies. One key strategy is to encourage increased purchase of apples and apple products by the federal government—in particular, the U.S. Department of Agriculture—for federal feeding programs.
During the 2008 Farm Bill debate, USApple worked in support of a number of key programs which were included in the final legislation and are now being implemented. These programs, new and existing, present promising opportunities for the apple industry.
The 2008 Farm Bill included additional funding for fruit and vegetable purchases. One of the innovative ways USDA is using this funding is through the creation of a fresh-sliced apple pilot program. In March, the department began accepting bids from U.S. apple producers to supply fresh sliced apples to students through the National School Lunch Program.
USApple has been working for months with USDA and the apple industry to facilitate launch of this important initiative. As a result, the pilot program will begin with a purchase of 3.3 million pounds of fresh sliced apples at a cost of $4.1 million.
The pilot is only in five states at this time, but, after careful monitoring and evaluation, USDA plans to expand the program to all 50 states.
Every five years, federal nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC), must be renewed under the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act. Lawmakers review the programs and make needed adjustments and improvements.
The Obama Administration, including Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak, strongly supports healthy school meal and snack programs because they are integral to decreasing childhood obesity and lowering health care costs. Congress appears to share this support, demonstrated by their expansion of funding for these programs in the Farm Bill.
A top priority of USApple in the Farm Bill was the expansion of the Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program, which started as a pilot, to all 50 states. Targeted at schools with a high number of low-income students, the program provides a free fruit or vegetable snack to students participating in the School Meals Program. The Farm Bill stipulates that funds be increased for each year of the Bill's term, so for this coming school year there is $65 million, which then jumps to $101 million for the next year and then to $150 million. Since funding is distributed based on population—the number of schools per states varies with the current range being anywhere from 30 schools in the smaller states to well over 100 schools in larger states—the number of eligible schools will keep growing as the funds increase.
More must be done
But more needs to be done. USApple is urging Congress to increase reimbursement rates given to schools. Studies conducted by the School Nutrition Association and USDA show a deficit of about 30 cents between the cost of preparing a lunch and the current reimbursement rate. This will significantly help schools provide meals that meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, with more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy, in particular.
Such a move would be an outstanding complement to the $100 million in non food assistance grants allocated in the federal stimulus package for the purchase of new equipment such as refrigerators and salad bars.
Apples are expected to become a staple item in the WIC program beginning this year. The USDA has revised its list of eligible food for purchase to reflect the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, per the recommendation of the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences. Inclusion of significantly expanded fruit and vegetable purchases, including apples, under the WIC program will be operative nationwide by October 1, according to USDA. The New York and Delaware programs are already under way.
USApple applauded this decision to add apples and other produce to this large and very important program. Almost half of all infants and about a quarter of all children ages one to four in the United States participate in the program. More than 8.2 million people get WIC benefits each month. The goal of the WIC program is to safeguard the health of low-income women, infants, and children through age 4 who are at nutritional risk. With $6.86 billion in federal funding for fiscal year 2009, WIC is USDA's third-largest food and nutrition assistance program and accounts for 10 percent of total federal spending on food and nutrition assistance.
In recent talks with USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, USApple highlighted current large inventories of fresh apples. We emphasized that the record inventories of fresh apples and significant inventories of processed apple products, coupled with the sharp economic downturn, have collided to create a situation that could significantly weaken the economic foundation of an industry critical to the nation's food supply. There is ample past precedent to justify a substantial purchase of apples and apple products by the department.
USApple is also working with Congressional representatives from key apple states to encourage this major USDA apple buy—at least one million boxes—for use in federal nutrition programs. The response thus far has been outstanding. In May, Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Patty Murray (D-WA), along with Representatives Doc Hastings (R-WA) and Eric Massa (D-NY), took the lead in writing USDA in strong support of a purchase.
Fresh apples are not the only focus of federal purchases. Recently, USDA announced it is planning to purchase a variety of fruit and vegetable products, including canned applesauce and apple juice, for various domestic food assistance programs. Anticipated purchases will be made from offers that must be submitted on a delivered-to-destination price basis. Deliveries will be required from June 15, 2009 through December 31, 2009.
The Commodity Procurement Branch of the Fruit and Vegetable Programs, under USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, buys fresh and processed fruits, vegetables, and specialty items from industry vendors. The service provides people with nutritious food and removes surplus production from the marketplace. Foods are often low in fat, sugar, and sodium, and must be grown and processed in the United States.
Regardless of how movement of the 2008 crop turns out and the role of federal purchases in driving down supplies, expanding the amount of apples used in key federal feeding programs remains a top USApple priority. USApple will continue working with USDA and Congress, communicating the message that apples are healthy, affordable, and convenient, and should be an essential component of every food and nutrition assistance program.