This week, more than 500 produce industry leaders come together for United’s annual Washington Public Policy Conference.
It’s also a tradition for the policymakers here in Washington who have come to rely on United Fresh members and staff for help in shaping the government policies that affect our industry.
Also this week at WPPC, we’re celebrating a special 10-year anniversary. It was in 2001 at the WPPC when Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa announced his proposal for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which was included as a pilot in the 2002 farm bill.
Harkin had a vision of providing fresh fruit and vegetable snacks to millions of kids in schools across the country, and United Fresh has worked every year since to expand the funding and scope of the program.
For this school year, $158 million will be invested in serving over 4 million elementary schoolchildren nationwide, up 40% from last year.
What’s more, produce companies are rising to the challenge with innovations and efficiencies to supply schools with fresh produce.
Today, schools are becoming one of our industry’s most important markets, not just for moving boxes today but for investing in the lifelong eating habits of our future customers.
To mark the program’s 10-year anniversary, we have Sen. Harkin as our keynote speaker at the opening session on Oct. 4.
Our industry will enjoy a moment of celebration in appreciation for the senator’s vision and leadership on a program that has benefited millions of children and established a model for produce industry growth.
And while we’re on Capitol Hill, we’ll remember to thank all the members of Congress for making the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program a reality for millions of America’s kids.
But it won’t be all celebration.
This year’s attendees will roll up their sleeves on several critical policy challenges. Mandatory E-Verify legislation in the House of Representatives has the produce industry on alert, working hard to see that a new and workable agricultural guest worker program is included as part of this bill.
We’ve already seen what mandatory E-verify can do to the labor force in states like Georgia that have passed their own versions of the law. Without a legal and reliable guest worker program, mandatory E-Verify means a mandatory disaster for the fresh produce business.
Over the past few months, United Fresh members and staff have been meeting with key members of Congress to share our concerns about mandatory E-Verify and the need for a workable agricultural worker program.
Some congressional staff actually ask if growers are truly facing serious labor shortages.
The pictures we show them of crops that had to be left rotting in the fields are worth a thousand words.
This week will be something special.
Members will be telling their own personal stories in more than 150 Congressional meetings on Capitol Hill, and in visits to the major regulatory agencies.
They’ll connect with powerful elected officials about the critical priorities for our industry, and meet with the powerful “unelected” who run our government in many ways.
While some of our staff titles may say “lobbyist,” this week the real lobbyists come to town — the members of this great industry.
Tom Stenzel is president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.
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