Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association
Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association

I can’t remember a time when our produce industry was more at the forefront of policy action in Washington, D.C.

In the past two weeks alone, we’ve seen the Senate pass comprehensive immigration reform while the House Judiciary Committee addressed an agricultural guest worker program.

The full House of Representatives debated, and unfortunately voted down, a five-year farm bill.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture published new regulations to improve snack foods in schools, paving the way for a huge increase in fresh produce snacks for kids.

A federal court ruled that the Food and Drug Administration must get on with publishing and finalizing its new food safety regulations.

I don’t know any other industry with that kind of agenda in Washington right now.

But with all the fanfare and debate, there are big warning signs ahead that require you to get involved.

The House seems to be on a different wavelength on immigration reform, one day acknowledging the need for a secure labor force for agriculture, and the next day turning a deaf ear to our concerns.

The FDA seems to be working hard to engage with stakeholders in reviewing its proposed regulations issued thus far, but we’re still waiting for the critical foreign supplier verification rule that is an underpinning of other rules.

USDA has done a great job with the new school snack rules, but processed food companies and some few school districts who don’t want change are teaming up to push back, claiming kids won’t eat fresh produce (which we know is wrong!).

And maybe worst of all, the collapse of the farm bill in the House showed just how far we still have to go to convince legislators to compromise and achieve reasonable goals, rather than play to political talking points and fail to accomplish anything.

That’s where you come in.

There’s an old saying that “the people get the government they deserve.” Maybe that’s a bit unfair, but the truth is that every one of us can influence these issues. We need to let our national legislators know that they can’t keep ducking the tough choices, whether on immigration, food safety or the farm bill.

Inaction is making a choice, and with the challenges we face, inaction is simply another word for failure.

We need to get involved too at the state and local level, with city councils and school boards that may be wrestling with these new school lunch rules.

How many of you are parents who can help local school officials wean themselves off the junk food cycle and take a fresh look at the vast array of new fresh produce snacks that kids do want to eat today?

Our salad bar campaign has shown the way forward for schools — give kids a choice of a wide variety of fresh produce items and they will choose wisely.

Let’s challenge all the naysayers who say kids won’t eat produce to join us watching first- and second-graders devour fresh fruits and veggies from their school salad bar.

These individual efforts are critical, but we also have to connect with one another across our industry to deliver these messages. Politicians count numbers, and when they see hundreds of produce growers, wholesalers and retailers and allied organizations marching on Capitol Hill, they get the point visually.

That’s why it’s so important that we connect as an industry at this year’s Washington Public Policy Conference — in full force of numbers — to carry a stronger message than any one of us can deliver alone.

That’s the formidable power of a connected industry.

We are truly on the cusp of major changes for our business — immigration reform to secure our future labor supply, new school standards to increase consumption of produce, food safety regulations that protect public health without needless burdens on business, and a solid five-year farm bill that helps us invest in the future of fresh fruits and vegetables.

If we don’t raise our voices now in support of those goals, who will?

Tom Stenzel is president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

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