Ron Midyett, Apio Inc.
Ron Midyett, Apio Inc.

You’re probably as frustrated as I am about the congressional gridlock that led to the federal government’s so-called shutdown. As business operators and taxpayers, we expect more from Congress.

However, during the first days of the shutdown, this very dark government cloud had a bright silver lining.

Just as hundreds of federal offices were turning out the lights and locking the doors, more than 500 United Fresh Produce Association members arrived to participate in another successful Washington Public Policy Conference. You could feel the energy level around the Capitol spike as the conference got underway.

Shutdown be damned.

The robust turnout we had at WPPC is a testament to the enormous commitment United Fresh members have for the fresh produce industry. Even as many federal employees were sent home, United’s WPPC attendees carried on with determination to get things done during the conference.

We all have serious matters to take up with our government officials and there’s no time to waste, shutdown or not.

United Fresh members met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to have serious discussions about the urgent need for immigration reform legislation. They spoke about their own labor needs and the devastating effect that workforce shortages can have on their companies.

What’s more, members reminded policymakers about the importance of the research, marketing, state block grants and other programs in the farm bill.

The current farm bill has officially expired. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Nutrition, Agriculture and Forestry, told United’s conference attendees that farm bill programs were “running on fumes,” and that Congress needs to get a new bill passed and enacted right away.

We shared our views on the farm bill and immigration reform in a meeting United members and staff had with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. We had candid and productive discussions with Sen. Reid about the challenges facing the produce industry, as well as the challenges facing Congress.

It says a lot about United’s clout on Capitol Hill when the Majority Leader of the Senate takes time out during a historic government crisis to discuss produce industry concerns.

This year’s WPPC also celebrated the progress we’re making in school nutrition policy. It was standing-room-only during an educational session about the impressive growth in produce consumption in our nation’s schools. A panel of school nutrition experts and produce suppliers shared their exciting success stories about adding more fruits and vegetables to school meals.

School spending for fresh produce is going up in a big way.

For example, Cincinnati’s public schools have doubled their fresh produce lunch purchases over the past five years, and increases for other school districts are just as impressive.

The advice from the experts: Get to know your local school nutrition officials.

Every school district is unique, but they share the need for meeting new school meal standards that call for doubling the servings of fresh produce. Partner with them to provide solutions. The need is very, very real and it is a tremendous opportunity for the produce industry.

It seemed appropriate to be hearing about this landmark growth in school produce consumption at the WPPC.

After all, it was the hard work of United and its allies advocating for many years for increased fruit and vegetable consumption in schools that made these advances possible. School meals, fresh produce snacks, salad bars and other programs are driving extraordinary increases in produce consumption.

That’s why, even if the government is forced to shut down for a while, we can never stop working together for a stronger, more prosperous industry.

Ron Midyett is chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association and chief executive officer of Guadalupe, Calif.-based Apio Inc.

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.