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All Forms of Fruits, Vegetables Can Be Healthy Snacks

photo of California-grown -peaches by JoAnne Green

As the 2016 election draws closer, there are plenty of policy issues all Americans can argue passionately for or against. However, there should be no dispute regarding the importance of consuming more fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy diet. In fact, the recently released U.S. Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that everyone eat more fruits and vegetables regardless of form: canned, frozen, fresh, dried or 100 percent juice.

Based on the Dietary Guidelines, it would seem to be a "no brainer" that all USDA food and nutrition programs would mirror the guidelines and provide recipients with access to all forms of fruits and vegetables. Though this is true for most programs, efforts are now underway to address an ongoing policy inconsistency regarding the school snack program, as part of the reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Currently, the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program only allows participating schools to serve fresh fruits and vegetables for school snacks. In an effort to allow schools to serve more fruits and vegetables whether they are fresh, canned, frozen or dried the California Canning Peach Association has joined with more than 50 food and agriculture groups from all across the country, including the California Farm Bureau Federation and American Farm Bureau Federation, in urging the House Education and Workforce Committee to expand the school snack program eligibility to encompass "all forms" of fruits and vegetables.

We believe expanding the program would provide school nutrition officials with a wide range of affordable options for increasing the variety of healthy fruits and vegetables that schools can offer year-round, thus furthering the program's ability to promote improved childhood nutrition and benefit more children. We recognize many schools currently lack sufficient resources to meet the current school nutrition regulatory mandate to increase servings of fruits and vegetables. Increased flexibility on product eligibility would give many school foodservice directors the opportunity to serve more U.S.-grown fruits and vegetables.

Simply put, schools would not be forced to take any snack items they don't want, but they would be free to choose which fruits and vegetables would work best for them from the entire menu of options. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack echoed this theme more than four years ago, when he noted that "we are very interested in promoting fruits and vegetables in a variety of different forms to be more integrated into the school lunch, school breakfast and school snack programs as well as after-school programs and child care facilities throughout the country. "

The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program plays an important role in educating children in low-income schools that healthy fruits and vegetables can fuel their bodies and minds. An equally important component should be teaching children that healthy fruits and vegetables come in many different forms.

Surprisingly, the effort to broaden school snack options for school foodservice officials continues to be controversial. Defenders of the "fresh only" regulations in Washington, D.C., seem to believe that fresh fruits and vegetables are more nutritious and that schools will elect to serve less nutritious school snacks if given the opportunity to choose a processed fruit or vegetable snack.

There is plenty of science available to counteract this misperception. Brian Wansink, who currently serves as director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, recently noted, "Consumers need to get out of the mindset that only fresh fruits and vegetables are healthy." In addition, numerous studies conducted at the University of California, Davis; Michigan State; University of Georgia; and Tufts University have repeatedly confirmed the nutritional equivalency of fresh versus canned and frozen fruits and vegetables.

Although there are many schools with access to locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, there are many more school districts in cold-weather states or rural areas where access to U.S.-grown fresh fruits and vegetables is limited, so they are not able to participate in the current school snack program.

A real-world example of the distribution problem faced by many rural school districts is the challenge faced by Cindy Ritchie, the school foodservice director in Moran, Kan., population: 600. Her local high school serves approximately 200 students from Moran and outlying areas. This district was one of a limited number of participants in a USDA "all forms" pilot program conducted last year in four states. She said she was thrilled to have the opportunity to serve fruit cups as a school snack, and reported a very positive response by the students.

Expanding the program eligibility to "all forms" would allow more school districts to serve more fruits and vegetables to more students. A rising tide lifts all boats: Not only would this policy change benefit school districts, it would also benefit a broad range of specialty crop growers in all parts of the country.

We are pleased to have strong, bipartisan support for this effort in both the Senate and the House, but there is still more work to be done. We look forward to continuing the conversation as we seek to ensure that school-aged children consume more fruits and vegetables while developing healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.

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