Ray Gilmer, United Fresh Produce Association
Ray Gilmer, United Fresh Produce Association

This week, business leaders from the produce industry’s top companies converge on the nation’s capital for The Washington Conference, United’s annual public policy event.

To the nearly 500 executives from 36 states, Mexico and Canada who are here to shape a better future for their businesses and the entire fresh produce industry, I extend a hearty “Welcome to Washington, D.C.”

At this year’s conference, attendees will be delivering vital messages to policymakers about the need for immigration reform and upholding school nutrition standards that increase access to fruits and vegetables for millions of kids.

They’ll also hear from experts on critical policy issues that are facing their businesses, including the California water crisis, the GMO debate and how it could affect fruits and vegetables, how current and pending regulations will affect the produce supply chain, international trade, and how the growing Hispanic population could lead to political shifts that reshape national policies and programs that affect our industry.

In particular, nutrition standards in our nation’s schools are the focus of a critically important debate on Capitol Hill and across the country.

The new standards call for schools to serve a fruit/vegetable at lunch as part of the National School Lunch Program. More than 100,000 schools are serving fruits and vegetables to 32 million kids because of the new nutrition standards — that’s real progress!

This summer, we’ve seen discussions in Congress for possibly granting a waiver of these standards to schools that have experienced difficulty adopting the new requirement.

United firmly opposes granting waivers for these important nutrition standards. Instead, the industry is offering assistance to schools in making the transition to serving more fresh produce.

United Fresh’s chairman Ron Carkoski, president and CEO of the Ephrata, Pa.-based Four Seasons Family of Cos., met this summer with the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and school nutrition advocates to explore ways to help schools that might be struggling with the new requirements. Carkoski pledged that the produce industry will help schools efficiently procure fresh produce to meet the lunch standards.

Partnering with schools to help them succeed was also our message at the School Nutrition Association’s annual meeting in July, where United Fresh hosted a fresh produce pavilion that resulted in hundreds of face-to-face meetings between produce industry companies and school nutrition directors.

Healthy kids

At United Fresh’s conference this week, the Tuesday General Session Luncheon, “Why Fighting for Healthier School Meals Is So Important,” will focus on our nation’s childhood obesity epidemic and how providing access to more fresh produce in schools can be part of the solution.

Leaders from the American Heart Association, National PTA, and Mission: Readiness will join us to underscore the importance of healthful nutrition for our nation’s kids.

These leaders recognize that greater consumption of fresh produce is an important strategy for addressing the childhood obesity crisis and ensuring the overall health of our nation.

For the retired military leaders of Mission: Readiness, fixing the childhood obesity crisis is a matter of national security.

For our colleagues and friends who are joining us in Washington this week, I say thank you for your time and dedication.

Your presence here really makes all the difference for getting things done in Congress and at the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency.

Your voice, and those of hundreds of industry colleagues, makes our industry stronger.

Cultivating leaders

Building a stronger industry is why more than 50 of our industry’s next generation of executives are joining us at the conference this week as part of United Fresh’s new Rising Leaders seminar.

It’s a half-day educational and networking program designed to help our industry’s up-and-coming leaders learn how to navigate government rules and regulations; effectively communicate with elected officials, business leaders and industry colleagues; use public policy to shape the future success of their companies; and understand the personal characteristics that define them as leaders.

Of course, participants in the Rising Leaders program also get the benefit of experiencing The Washington Conference.

If you’re not joining us on Capitol Hill this week, I have to ask why not? You’re missing a valuable opportunity to work for better laws and regulations that can shape the future of your company.

Ask anyone who has attended — they’ll tell you The Washington Conference is rewarding experience for your business and your career.

Ray Gilmer is the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association’s vice president of issues management and communication.

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