(June 27) WASHINGTON, D.C. — Nobody in the produce industry seems to be advocating the taxation of soft drinks or other foods of nutritionally questionable value.

Not yet, anyway.

But that’s one of the ideas circulating — gaining momentum, in some lobbying circles — in the wake of President Bush’s Healthier U.S. initiative, announced June 20 at a fitness fair on the White House south lawn.

The Healthier U.S. initiative calls for enhancing the national 5 a Day for Better Health Program with a more coordinated effort between the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute.

Bush urged Americans to consume “at least five fruits or vegetables a day” at the fitness expo.

The Wilmington, Del.-based Produce for Better Health Foundation and the Alexandria, Va.-based United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association will work with the three agencies to identify policy needs and shape policy proposals to increase produce consumption, said United president Tom Stenzel.

Elizabeth Pivonka, PBH president, said taxing junk food is not a high priority at present.

“I doubt we’ll get into that,” she said. “We’ve had discussions about that. We will probably not make that part of our fruit and vegetable (consumption) platform.”

That’s not to say other groups won’t make that part of theirs, though.

CARROT, NOT STICK

Obesity in the U.S. is a stated concern of the Bush administration. However, produce groups want to attack the problem by making fruits and vegetables more accessible to Americans, particularly children, and not necessarily making junk food less so.

United, PBH and government agencies are working on three areas, Stenzel said.

“The first is implementing the new provisions of the farm bill that call for increased fruit and vegetable consumption,” he said, such as school feeding programs.

“The second would be funding for nutrition promotion, 5 a Day programs, health education, that whole area, and that takes place, primarily in the CDC budget, for their nutrition promotion and health programs.”

Funding for that program has risen from zero to $27 million in two years, Stenzel added.

The third major effort will push Congress to reauthorize child nutrition legislation, Stenzel said.

“It’s a big collection of everything from school lunch to after-school feeding programs. It’s extremely comprehensive,” he said.

NUTRITION PROGRAMS

Part of that will involve convincing the USDA to purchase more fresh items for nutrition programs, Stenzel said.

“Last year, 95% of USDA purchases of fruits and vegetables were processed product,” he said. “So we’re pushing them hard to increase the percentage of fresh. Right now, they’ll put out a bid for, let’s say, frozen peaches, and while that’s good, we also want to make sure they put out a bid for fresh peaches, plums and nectarines.”

The latter effort likely would take as long as 18 months, he added.

“By the end of 2003, there will be new legislation enacted on child nutrition programs,” Stenzel said.

NO POSITION ON TAX

Junk-food taxes are not part of the effort, as far as United or PBH are concerned, Stenzel said.

“It’s certainly something that gets floated, and it’s going to be part of the debate,” he said. “We don’t have a well-developed position one way or another on that.”

Such a tactic may be unnecessary, Stenzel said.

“More important than how you get the money is how you spend it,” he said. “In the debate, somebody says that the only way to get that money is to tax certain foods, and that will be up to debate. But I don’t think it has to be based on individual food taxes.”

Such efforts have been ongoing at PBH and United, Pivonka said, but now they have, at least, the implied presidential influence behind them.

“The fact that USDA has gotten more involved with the national 5 a Day program has already helped us,” Pivonka said. “Having Ann Veneman there (as agriculture secretary) was already helpful. This just adds much more power to our effort.”