(Sept. 12) Who needs Produce Man?

With a sharpening public policy focus on improving the diets of Americans through fresh produce, the eighth Annual Washington Public Policy Conference featured high-profile government officials who seemed to be pitchmen for fruits and vegetables.

For an industry that in the recent past faced a public policy agenda dominated by issues like food safety and pesticide residues, the change is welcome, said Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va.

“I think the most significant thing in this year’s conference was the pervasive momentum toward nutrition and health and increasing produce consumption,” Stenzel said.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson jointly addressed the 230 attendees of the conference. Each spoke of the need for healthier diets and greater physical activity to combat obesity.

In addition, Bill Dietz, director of the division of nutrition and physical activity for the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, presented statistics concerning Americans’ slide toward obesity and possible steps that could elevate the presence of fruits and vegetables in the diet.

“When he showed his slides on the increasing evidence of obesity, you could hear the gasps,” Stenzel said.

Another highlight of the show was the press conference announcing the release of the General Accounting Office report on federal efforts to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Reps. Sam Farr, D-Calif., and Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., requested that report. The GAO document encouraged more government efforts to promote fruits and vegetables.

“There is a public health crisis, and we have a major part of the solution in fruits and vegetables,” Stenzel said, calling for greater efforts on the part of industry and government to promote fruit and vegetable consumption.
Stenzel said the momentum to promote fruits and vegetables is a slow-turning ship when it comes to actually changing priorities of the government.

“We shouldn’t be naive. There are competing interests for money. There are competing sectors who don’t want to see fresh produce growers have a bigger piece of the pie,” he said.

Stenzel said it will be a long-term fight to break through entrenched bureaucracies to change the rhetoric to action to get the funds the industry needs.

“This is not how to get $2 million here and $1 million there, this is moving the aircraft carrier and trying to turn the direction of national health policy,” he said.

With Veneman and Thompson already talking up fruits and vegetables, he said moving the ship is becoming much more possible.